Assistive tech innovations attract attention

By Bethan Halliwell, partner and patent attorney at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.

Assistive and adaptive technologies are developing quickly due to increasing demand for solutions that support social inclusion for those living with disabilities and could play a big role in opening up the workplace to all.

By 2050, more than three and a half billion people will require at least one form of assistive technology product, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The need for assistive and adaptive technologies is being driven largely by an ageing population and a rise in noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as more people with disabilities seeking to live independently at home. Increased awareness of the importance of health and wellbeing is prompting calls for more practical solutions that help people to communicate effectively and enjoy the benefits of social inclusion. As a result of this, patent filings for emerging assistive technologies have been growing at three times the rate of conventional technologies.

This increase in research and development activity has given rise to a wide range of novel solutions. For example in the field of cosmetics, innovators have developed an elongated application wand and makeup brushes with non-rolling, cuboid handles that provide an easier grip for people with visual impairments. In 2023 a prototype of the world’s first hand-held, computerised makeup applicator was released by L’Oréal. The prototype uses AI and motion detection to stabilise the position of the applicator to enable users with limited mobility to apply lipstick precisely.

Other innovations are designed to aid communication. For example, a hi-tech system has been developed by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is capable of measuring low-voltage, neuromuscular signals using electrodes placed on the skin of the user’s face and jaw. The signals are generated by the neural activation of speech muscles when the user articulates words internally. After detecting the signals, the system is able to respond in a variety of ways - for example, by transmitting audio feedback or interacting with another device, such as a television. Such innovations provide flexible and accessible communication systems for people living with conditions such as motor neurone disease who have previously had to rely upon much slower technologies, such as eye-tracking devices.

Progress in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) have also opened up a myriad of opportunities for innovators to explore and develop. In 2023, an AI-based system was successfully used to record movement patterns in the upper arm of an amputee and dictate the actions performed by their prosthesis. Similar inventions include the creation of an AI-powered prosthetic leg by researchers from Konyang University in South Korea that uses a 3D motion camera to photograph and analyse a wearer’s gait. This data is used to provide predictive control over the prosthesis, so the wearer is able to walk in a seamless and natural fashion.

Other applications of AI have focused on helping those with hearing impairments. The integration of deep learning AI in hearing aids has delivered significant improvements for users. The latest devices can accurately process real-time audio data and focus on important sounds in different environments.

Continued progress in the IoT and radio frequency (RF) sensing technology – the transmission of wireless radio signals to capture information – could soon deliver another step change in the evolution of assistive listening devices. Early research published by the National Library of Medicine has shown how wi-fi and radar technologies can be used to aid lip reading under a face mask using RF sensing technology. Data is captured in the form of vowel sounds spoken through a mask and used to train machine learning and deep learning models, with such systems being able to achieve an accuracy of 95 per cent. Such technology could therefore soon help to enhance the performance of hearing devices, particularly in presence of face masks or other face coverings.

Advanced assistive technologies are of huge benefit to the growing number of people living with disabilities, as well as to carers and the care system. A report led by the Cabinet Office shows that 31 per cent of disabled people who require an assistive product do not currently have access to one. For innovators looking to move into this space, a deep understanding of the needs of people with disabilities is critical to success, particularly as market competition is high. It is also important to have oversight of the patent landscape before launching a product as this could help to identify market opportunities and mitigate the risk of patent infringement claims.

Innovators should file patent applications as early as possible to protect their technologies and prevent rivals from copying them, and potentially getting a new product to market ahead of them. With patent protection in place, they can then choose how to commercialise their intellectual property (IP) rights. For example, they may wish to license their IP to third parties in exchange for royalty payments and due to the crowded nature of the MedTech market, there may well be plenty of opportunities to do so.

With the need for assistive and adaptive solutions rising in tandem with digital tech advancements, innovators will have to move quickly to develop a novel product and bring it to market ahead of their competitors. Understanding who is filing what and where, and securing protection early, could be key to their success.