The Emma Watch: An amazing tool to treat Parkinson’s tremors

11 May 2017

Still from ‘Build 2017: Project Emma’. Image: Microsoft/YouTube

Microsoft is developing a wearable that could help people experiencing tremors from Parkinson’s.

In a world of slow wearable innovation and generally limited health functionality in mainstream devices, we need something big and bold to kick-start the market.

While not at a commercial level just yet, Microsoft might have the potential to do just that.

Revealed at Build 2017, its annual developer conference, CEO Satya Nadella welcomed two people onto the stage as he revealed his company’s latest trick: the Emma Watch.

Viewers of the BBC show The Big Life Fix might remember Emma Lawton, who suffers from tremors brought about by Parkinson’s disease.

As a graphic designer, this restricted her from much of the work she loved to do, so Microsoft designer Haiyan Zhang decided to find a solution. The duo stood in front of the Build 2017 audience to show the results.

Inspired by other tools on the market (specifically a spoon that vibrates to counteract hand tremors), Zhang developed a sensor-laden wrist wearable.

The theory was that Lawton, or anyone with Parkinson’s, would be able to control hand movements, sign documents and even draw while wearing the watch.

Microsoft isn’t stopping there, though, with Nadella revealing plans to develop the product for commercial sale.

“To be able to write your name is a basic human right,” Lawton said. “To be able to do it and do it neatly is really special to me now. It’s empowering. It made me feel that I could do anything.”

Microsoft said the device is many years from hitting the shelves but, considering the visible effect it had on Lawton, it probably can’t come soon enough for some.

With Parkinson’s, extra signals are sent from the brain to muscles, which is what results in tremors and shakes, almost operating in a loop.

The vibrations that Zhang developed in the Emma Watch seem to cause Lawton’s brain to focus on her right wrist, apparently reducing the brain’s messages to that spot.

“It’s like injecting white noise into that feedback loop in order to disrupt it,” Zhang said, with the pattern key to the device’s success.

From left: Haiyan Zhang, Emma Lawton and Satya Nadella at Microsoft Build 2017. Image: Microsoft

From left: Haiyan Zhang, Emma Lawton and Satya Nadella at Microsoft Build 2017. Image: Microsoft

For Lawton, a rhythmic vibration is effective, and it’s controlled by a Windows 10 app.

For other people, this rhythm might not prove beneficial and investigations into problems such as this could delay any mass-market sale.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic