Life Care Plan, Medical Consultation

Project Emma Is A Breakthrough In Parkinson’s Research

 June 5, 2017

By  Kimberly German

A wearable is an assistive or medical device disguised as a fashion accessory. The only flaw in their design is that the love and ingenuity poured into their creation are almost always impossible to hide. Take Emma Lawton, for example. Emma is both the name of a 33 year old graphic designer with Parkinson's disease and the name engraved on the new wearable that is enabling her to do her two favorite things: drawing lines and letters.

Officially known as The Emma Watch, the device generates vibrations on the wrist of the wearer that counteract the tremors of Parkinson's. A burgeoning friendship between Lawton and Microsoft researcher Haiyan Zhang was the genesis of this revolutionary idea. The two young women shared a mutual admiration for one another which led to Zhang's quest to study the disease and begin building prototypes that would allow her friend to be able to write her name again.

Before we can describe how it works, it would be best to first explore the friendship that sparked the inspiration. Emma Lawton is the author of Dropping The P Bomb, which charts her journey since being diagnosed at age 29. Born in Bedfordshire, England, Lawton found her passion for design after flirting with acting. Neither profession would have weathered the onset of Parkinson's, a debilitating disease for which there is no cure. It affects more than 10 million people world-wide. Then, Emma met 39 year old Zhang in London and the two immediately connected.

Zhang was born in China, which makes her Australian accent stand out all the more. At 9 years old, she was the only Asian child in an Aussie primary school which made her feel like an outsider. She would find her niche in the world of technology and end up working for Microsoft, where she led an innovation team in one of the Xbox gaming studios.

Once the two women had gotten to know one another, Zhang began to wonder if her tech skills could help alleviate Lawton's loss of writing function. Her research taught her that people with Parkinson's have brains that fire off extra signals to muscles. This creates a chaotic, internal feedback loop that sends muscles into a state of panic. The resulting movements are tremors. With the watch, Zhang's idea was to use rhythmic vibrations to inject white noise in that feedback loop and disrupt it. With fewer messages being sent from the brain to her right wrist, Lawton would regain her ability to write.

When Zhang finally delivered the prototype to Lawton, it was wrapped like a Christmas present. The wristwatch, engraved with her name, is activated by a Windows 10 tablet that has been personalized with a pink, leopard-print case. It is a testament to their friendship as much as it is a breakthrough in Parkinson's research. Both women cried with joy as Lawton proceeded to write her name, then a straight line, followed by several shapes.

Today, Lawton works two jobs and wears the Emma Watch to both. Her one job is at Parkinson's UK where she is a device, apps and gadgets strategist. At the other, she is a design strategy consultant for a company that educates the tourism industry about digital transformation.

Meanwhile, Zhang is exploring the tech further, hoping to improve the quality of life for more people living with Parkinson's. She is collaborating with a new initiative named Project Emma, which is fitting because Lawton continues to collaborate with Zhang. As their first subject, Lawton's helps with their neuroscience study and shares her experience with the device. In fact, she has even expressed a willingness to undergo tests, possible even a brain scan, while writing with the watch. The truth is that Lawton simply does not like to be without the one-of-a-kind watch that bears her name.

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