‘Smart’ carpet can tell if you’ve fallen and can’t get up

Remember the “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” commercials, which promoted a medical alert system for senior citizens? While the campy ads spawned a whole generation of satirical references, the idea behind the product they promoted represents a legitimate concern: how to ensure the safety of elderly or disabled people who live alone and might not be able to get help if they fall and injure themselves.

The latest potential solution is far less cheesy — and way smarter — than those advertised 20-odd years ago: a “smart” carpet that can detect and monitor a person’s walking patterns and even identify when they trip or fall.

Developed by an interdisciplinary team of researchers, the “magic” carpet is underlaid with plastic optical fibers and tiny electronics that can sense a person’s walking behavior. The carpet’s signals, when analyzed on a computer, can be used to identify a sudden fall or even detect gradual changes in walking behavior that might be missed by a human caregiver.

The researchers who developed the technology say it could be useful in hospitals and nursing homes. It could also help alert emergency personnel to fires or chemical spills.

“The carpet can gather a wide range of information about a person’s condition; from biomechanical to chemical sensing of body fluids, enabling holistic sensing to provide an environment that detects and responds to changes in patient condition,” said lead researcher Patricia Scully of the University of Manchester’s Photon Science Institute. “The carpet can be retrofitted at low cost, to allow living space to adapt as the occupiers’ needs evolve — particularly relevant with an aging population and for those with long-term disabilities — and incorporated non-intrusively into any living space or furniture surface such as a mattress or wall that a patient interacts with.”

Falls are one of the most frequent and serious household accidents, with injuries from falls accounting for around half of all hospital admissions for people ages 65 and up.

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