faculty and student
Assistant Professor Shivayogi Hiremath demonstrating the research.
Photo: Colleen Stepanian

The wearable fitness tracking market has exploded, with brands like FitBit™ selling 15 million units in 2017, alone. Fitness tracking and goal setting, in addition to social sharing for positive feedback and reinforcement are part of the draw. However, for the nearly 338,000 Americans living with spinal cord injury—and the 13,000 new cases emerging annually—options for similar technology are limited.

The potential to widen the scope of opportunity may be through the preliminary assistive technology research being developed by one Temple researcher, in collaboration with Northeastern University, Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, and MossRehab.

Dr. Shivayogi Hiremath, with dual-appointments in the College of Public Health and the College of Engineering, specializes in rehabilitation engineering. Early in his career, while helping streamline factory operations through automation and robotics, Dr. Hiremath spoke with a parent of a child with cerebral palsy about designing a device to help the child communicate. Similar devices were made popular by Stephen Hawking, but proved to be cost-prohibitive, ranging upwards of $10,000 just to import. For Dr. Hiremath though, the impact proved to be more inspirational than the price tag.

“The person just had to press buttons for the device to play pre-recorded sentences...and as we learn, the family could record personalized messages for the child,” he said. “I saw how technology could really empower people immediately.

After pursuing PhD work, Dr. Hiremath joined Temple in 2016. Among his research is the development of the JITAI, or just-in-time-adaptive-intervention system. The assistive technology provides a user—in this case, individuals with spinal cord injury who use manual wheelchairs—a way to track fitness. In addition, it leverages machine learning algorithms to provide adaptive intervention, giving a personalized boost and data tailored to the user.

Funded by a grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, this team is working with 20 users on the initial three-phase project: collecting a baseline of how much physical activity the subjects engage in, then showing feedback like energy expenditure and distance traveled. Finally, comes adaptive intervention.

The intervention is real-time, positive behavior reinforcement. If participants are doing well, they receive push alerts letting them know. If they need a bit of encouragement, the mobile app responds in-kind.

“One participant is a mechanic. We explained the three-month process, and how the intervention would work in month three. Two months later, he called us and said, ‘whoa, this is freaking me out! It detects me every time I’m doing a moderate or vigorous activity!’ He was obviously excited,” Dr. Hiremath laughed.

“As those goals come in throughout the day, it’s very motivating to them,” Dr. Hiremath said, before going on to describe how the user testing has informed the work, blending engineering and physical therapy.

“Some of our participants who don’t have fine digit control or movement cannot open the app or respond to some of these interactions. So, how can we give them a few different ways of feedback? We are trying to customize based on what they wanted for themselves. So, the challenges are unique and as you work with them, you realize how important they are,” he said.

After that, Hiremath plans to build on the research, next applying for funding from National Institutes of Health to expand the study three-fold and applying the technology for users with other conditions. So far, the progress is positive, with one participant adding that it’s motivated them to “work harder to have a routine and want to exercise more.”

“It’s very fulfilling to be able to test and iterate along with the users as stakeholders,” Hiremath said, adding that some participants even offered to purchase the devices. 

“Obviously, we couldn’t,” Dr. Hiremath smiled. “There’s still more testing to do.”