LifeBooster approached my smart objects core design class at Emily Carr to create a safety-monitoring wearable technology for labour workers in fall 2014. I immediately saw the opportunity for such an object to be used within the ever-growing construction and forestry industries in British Columbia (B.C.). LifeBooster sees a niche market for wearable technology in heavy-industry-based companies, where wearable electronics can be used to predict and prevent workplace accidents, improve workers’ health, and reduce potential financial and labour losses for companies due to worker injury. There is already an existing market for wearable electronics, especially ones that relate to monitoring the body in the form of a shirt or bracelet. Companies like FitBit, Hexoskin, and OM Signals have already found success in the market with products that use sensors like accelerometers, electrocardiograms, and stretch bands to monitor posture, pulse, and breathing, respectively. However, these products cater to a specific audience, largely to physically active people between 18-36 years of age, who are concerned about their health .
Defining the Design Opportunity
As an exercise preluding the creation of the actual wearable, each group in the core studio class was asked to create a blogject, an digital piece that captures and disseminates information, inspired by an evocative object of our choice, while keeping the LifeBooster mandate in mind. The purpose of this exercise was to get us to think about the network between a product, users, and stakeholders (e.g. employers, insurance companies, medical professionals). As a group, our chosen object was the carpenter level. As LifeBooster includes posture analysis as a way to predict potential injuries, we used the item’s purpose of highlighting if structures are plumb and level as a metaphor for the alignment of the body.
To hone in on what our blogject could do and look like, we first determined for whom we wanted to design. We chose to target middle-aged construction workers as our main users, since over half of workers in the B.C. industry are over 45 years old . Those who have injured themselves are highly susceptible to recurring injuries, with recovery time increasing with every instance. With this age bracket in mind, we wanted to create something that helped to support the body to minimize improper postures.
One of my group’s primary objectives with this blogject was to make it inconspicuous so that it would seamlessly blend into the user’s everyday life. We are aware that having a wearable on blatant display can alter a worker’s behaviour. With that in mind, we hoped to integrate our posture analyzing technology into something workers already wear, to keep it out of sight.
Research and Analysis
Before delving into the form and construction of our carpenter level-inspired wearable, we researched the biomechanics of posture including common musculoskeletal injuries, causes of back pain, short and long term effects of improper posture, and correct lifting techniques. We determined that the lower back is the leading area for injury in the construction industry. WorkSafeBC, a provincial government office that promotes workplace health and safety, and receives injury claims; over a quarter of all injury claims are related to the lower region of the back . As such, addressing posture affecting the lower back became our main objective.
As an experimental study of proper lifting techniques, we attached water balloons to a reflector vest to exaggerate the shift in weight distribution when correctly and incorrectly lifting objects of various weights. We found that the weight of the water balloons on the body forced the wearer to correctly lift objects with the knees as the vest weighed the body downwards. When engaging in improper lifting techniques, without bending the knees, the wearer felt like tipping over due to the extra weight pushing the upper torso forward. The muscles in the core, legs and feet were abruptly flinched in order to balance the body due to the sudden sensation of tipping over. This illustrated a potential space where we could address improper posture leading to muscle overexertion. Our quick study of the effects of correctly and incorrectly lifting objects on the muscles and body solidified our desire to address posture.
Looking at existing apparel and accessories construction workers use around the lower back region, we focused on a wearable similar to a weight belt that would securely wrap around the hips. This type of wearable would provide close body contact for an embedded accelerometer that would accurately determine the user’s posture, while physically supporting the lower back when the user does heavy lifting. As many people are in the habit of lifting incorrectly, the belt concept includes a vibration feedback mechanism that goes off whenever a specified degree of posture tilt is detected, signalling incorrect posture. This feedback system was included to train the user to lift properly with their knees while keeping their back straight and whole body aligned. We created a proof of concept for our belt using a soft, padded fabric, with a small pocket for the accelerometer and vibration hardware. The width of the belt was slightly wider than a normal belt with velcro on the ends for the user to adjust to their size.
While we had found a way to notify users when bad posture occurs, we also wanted to take a step back to find the root causes of bad posture. Through our research, we identified that it is how we physically interact with our environment that can lead to bad posture, and that our point of contact with our environment is through our feet. Accordingly, we shifted our focus from the lower back region to the feet for our next injury prevention tool.
For the second iteration of our posture-related wearable, our research focused on different types of feet arches in relation to body alignment. Speaking from their own experiences, two of my group members who had previously worked in the construction industry noted that foot orthotics are widely used in this industry to address posture and pain-related issues stemming from long periods of mobility. These insoles, however, only feel natural to wear when users are standing still, and are very uncomfortable when moving about. The two group members reasoned that orthotics are cast from the shape of the feet when standing still and do not take into account the shape when moving. This reasoning led us to explore a new orthotic creation tool that takes into account not only the form of the feet when standing, but also when walking, running, and bending, among other mobile actions.
To guide which areas of the sole of the feet we should address in our new orthotic tool, we talked to a pedorthist at Paris Orthotics and a biomechanist at Fortuis Sport + Health Centre to gain insight from professionals. Both specialists talked about the importance of feet in relation to posture with extremely arched and extremely flat-footedness as significant reasons for body misalignment. For our motion-recording orthotic tool, they suggested addressing the “tripod” of the feet: the heel, outer longitudinal arch, and the ball. Additionally, one of the key things they noted was that looking at the feet is one way of detecting the whole body’s posture. To accurately address posture, especially for medical purposes, the body’s center of pressure (COP) must also be taken into account. Located right under the navel on the body, the COP, along with feet positioning, can determine the body’s weight distribution and posture (C. McLean, personal interview, October 31, 2014).
Bearing this new information in mind, we went forward with outlining our object. Our concept uses insoles with six embedded pressure sensors placed on the tripod area, toes, and arch that record the movement and pressure of the feet. Our intent is to have the construction workers insert these insoles into their work boots for a period of one workweek to capture a comprehensive overview of the workers’ feet and movements. We created a prototype of what this insole would look like to demonstrate the way the electronics would be used and what kind of data would be collected. Six force-resistive sensors were taped to the bottom of an insole and connected with a circuit board. Each sensor corresponds to a red LED light that changes intensity depending on the amount of pressure placed on the sensor. From experimenting with several of ranges of motion, we saw changes in light intensity and the order in which each LED lit up.
To expand on this prototype, we could incorporate our initial idea of the belt in this data capture. However, instead of notifying the worker of bad posture through vibration, the belt would silently record the location of the worker’s COP. With both the insoles and belt working in conjunction with one another, the data gathered could be presented to professionals who could use this information to create better orthotics and hopefully improve the posture and physical well being of workers.
I would like to thank my fellow group-mates, Hope Akello, Michael Majeski, Dylan Moffat and Karmen Whinfrey, as well as Keith Doyle and Hélène Day Fraser for facilitating this project with LifeBooster.
-  British Columbia Construction Association. BC construction stat pack fall 2014, 2014. http://www.bccassn.com/downloads/BC%20Construction%20Stat%20Pack%20-%20Fall%202014.pdf.
-  Klick Wire. Wearable tech: Who wants it and why? 2014. http://www.klick.com/health/news/blog/mobile/wearable-tech-who-wants-it-and-why/.
-  WorkSafeBC. WorkSafeBC 2012 Statistics, 2013. http://worksafebc.com/publications/reports/statistics_reports/assets/pdf/stats2012.pdf.