A Kirigami-Inspired Sensor Could Help Stop Back Damage From Computer Work

A Kirigami-Inspired Sensor Could Help Stop Back Damage From Computer Work
Photo: Getty Images, Getty Images

Sitting for long hours hunched over a keyboard is terrible for your neck and back, a problem that’s only been exacerbated as more people work from home during the pandemic. Aside from investing in more ergonomic furniture or actually getting up to move and stretch regularly, there’s not a whole lot out there to help prevent sedentary workers from developing musculoskeletal disorders. On that front, researchers from the City University of Hong Kong have created a new device based on the Japanese art of paper cutting to remind people which joints they’re supposed to move and when.

The researchers published the details of their proof-of-concept device in Science Advances. They created a flexible sensor using a lead zirconate titanate ceramic network that features honeycomb-shaped grids. Those grids were created via kirigami, a version of origami that involves cutting paper instead of folding it. The device also contains sensors that can interpret joint movement into electrical signals, which are sent to a computer. Basically, you can stick these flexible sensors directly onto your neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists, and if you don’t move, a warning will pop up on your computer to tell you to get your butt up and move a particular joint at least 10 times in a 30-minute period.

Image: Dr. Zhengbao YANG from the City University of Hong Kong Image: Dr. Zhengbao YANG from the City University of Hong Kong

Musculoskeletal disorders are surprisingly costly for something many of us accept as a normal part of modern life. According to the CDC, they can cause between $US45 ($58) billion and $US54 ($70) billion annually in compensation costs, lost wages, and lost productivity.

Wearables to help you stop slouching already exist, but one of the major issues is that they’re rigid and aren’t great at detecting a joint’s full range of motion. (They can also catch on clothes and fall off.) Smartwatch reminders to move are also meant to get sedentary folks up and about, but they’re easy to ignore, turn off, or fool. In either case, you don’t really address musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome or tech neck. The cool aspect of this kirigami sensor is that the “cut” parts turn something that’s usually rigid into something that stretches and bends without destroying the device. Also, you could adhere the device to specific joints that might be causing you issues, without bulky components that would discourage you from wearing them in the first place.

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Researchers have long been toying around with kirigami to create flexible electronics for a few years now, though we haven’t seen many consumer-ready products utilising it just yet. And we likely won’t for a while. This sort of proof-of-concept research is always exciting to see but depends on private companies getting on board before we’ll see them in any consumer gadgets. That said, this is promising for future medical-grade devices and health wearables.