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New fashions for Fall-ing

A team of researchers whipped up a pair of pants designed to tattle on the fall-prone elderly.

Liu, et al. ©2008 IEEE, via

It's a problem we all face at some point: parents or grandparents start to get wobbly as they get older, followed by the inevitable falls and broken bones from which they frequently never fully recover. A team of Virginia Tech researchers has recently completed a study of the efficacy of pants with strategically placed sensors to determine the likelihood that a particular individual will take a tumble.

In a nutshell (you can read the abstract at IEEE Xplor, but the paper itself will be behind a paywall when it's published), Liu, Lockhart, Jones, and Martin from Virginia Tech's e-Textiles Lab determined that placing accelerometers at the ankle and hip to measure variations in vertical acceleration and angular velocity can identify gait irregularities that presage falling.

The idea is that you sew these "e-Tags" (e-Textile Attached Gadgets) into a pair of pants, tie them into a home automation or health-monitoring system, and grandma can live independently for a few more years without you hovering over her all the time. (For good, comprehensive coverage of the technology, pop over to

On one hand, this seems like a nifty idea. But several potential roadblocks to adoption seem inevitable. For instance, people usually know when they're unsteady or prone to falling; they generally don't want other people to know. And think about the ways health insurers could abuse potentially use the information.

Furthermore, how can you get the gizmo to provide a useful early-warning system? By the time the info gets signaled back, either you've hit the ground or you haven't. Sending a little shock through the system to tell the wearer, "Pay attention!" probably wouldn't fly, either.