SciTech Now Episode 313

In this episode of SciTech Now, a new winter sport that is designed to adapt to climate change; a mechanical engineer and a physical therapist teamed up to develop a device that helps stroke victims relearn how to walk; the grandson of Charles Lindbergh is pioneering clean, quiet, sustainable flight; and video games are helping patients cope with chronic pain.

TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

Coming up... a winter sport that adapts to climate change...

So very easy to ride, lots of surface area for you to actually have amazing traction.

So pretty much anybody can ride it.

...an amazing shoe...

In some sense, it makes the healthy leg less stable.

And so it is causing them to have to spend more time and try harder to walk with their impaired leg.

...flying eco-friendly skies...

I've flown an electric airplane.

It was incredible.

I heard a car door slam in the pattern while I was flying around.

It was that quiet.

...the healing power of video games...

If you're sitting strapped into a chair for four of five hours, to find yourself transported to a different realm can be greatly beneficial.

Oh, look, I won!

...it's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Climate change has made snowfall in some regions less consistent, posing a major problem for winter sports facilities.

But now, a new winter game is rolling onto the scene, guaranteeing fun for visitors with or without snow on the ground.

♪♪

It's winter, perfect time to enjoy the snow.

On a bicycle?

As long as it's got very big tires.

They're called 'fat bikes,' and because of them, a growing number of cyclists are riding outdoors year round.

They're just novel.

I mean, who thinks that you can ride a bike on snow, right?

You get a grown-up on these, and they act like a little kid.

The tires are about twice as wide as are regular mountain bikes.

They provide a stable platform that can travel over almost any surface.

Steve Mitchell started biking in snow in Alaska in the 1980s, long before fat bikes rolled on to the scene.

Eventually, I think people figured out that, you know, the bigger the tire, the better.

Once an obscure novelty, fat bikes are becoming the hot new thing.

In fact, it's the fastest accelerating portion of mountain-biking sales nationwide.

Like human-powered monster trucks, fat bikes bounce over hard crusted snow.

With Mitchell's help, fat bikes have gained traction in the Methow Valley of Central Washington -- a recreation destination made popular by a different winter sport, cross-country skiing.

The region has more than 120 miles of Nordic ski trails -- the largest such trail system in North America.

People come here to experience this beautiful mountain valley, the Old West town of Winthrop, but they also come her to recreate.

And lately, fat-biking has become so popular here that Methow Cycle & Sport had to double its stock of fat bikes to meet rising demand for rentals.

Yeah, you can just...

Julie Mullyaert is co-owner of the shop, and has become a fat-bike enthusiast herself.

Almost everyone knows how to ride a bike.

They can easily get on a bike and go, 'Oh, this is familiar to me.

I know how to do this.'

Recreation on the Methow trails infuses more than $12 million a year into the local economy.

And in the winter, recreationists keep Winthrop from becoming a ghost town.

Instead, places like Mitchell's Rocking Horse Bakery are packed.

[ Laughter ]

Snow is basically the dollar sign behind the local economy in the winter.

And, you know, without it, I don't think you'd have a thriving community.

There's been plenty of snow this year, but snowfall in recent years has been less and less consistent, and that trend is likely to continue as the climate changes.

Northwest winters are expected to see warmer average temperatures, leading to more rain and less snow.

Nationwide studies estimate the impacts of climate change will curtail spending on snow-based recreation by billions of dollars in the coming decades.

That's a big concern for people like James DeSalvo.

He's the Executive Director of the Methow Trails Association.

We think about the way that the environment's gonna change here a tremendous amount, and, specifically, that there won't be any snow some winter.

We want to be prepared for that day so that we've got still something to offer tourists who are coming here and really active locals who just love the trail network.

That's where fat bikes come in.

Because they work with or without snow on the ground, fat bikes could help places like the Methow survive lean-snow years.

And it's gonna be like this all week long.

♪♪ Fat bikes are really fun to ride on dirt, in the mud, on the snow, and as we're transitioning either into winter or out of winter, we can still ride fat bikes.

So James and his team have begun making room on the Nordic trails for fat bikes.

They use snowmobiles with special grooming tools to create single-track-style fat-bike trails.

The key is to create something that people want to ride.

We're one of the first areas in the nation to allow fat bikes on portions of our trail system, and so we know that there's other types of users that would use our trails year round if we are just flexible enough and inventive enough to give it a try.

If fat bikes catch on here, there's a chance that cyclists will find themselves in conflict with other winter-sport enthusiasts.

But so far, that hasn't been a problem in the Methow Valley.

A little slippery out there.

This isn't the only place that's giving fat bikes a try.

We hear it's kind of tricky out today.

It is a little tricky on today's snow.

Alpine ski resorts across the country have begun embracing fat bikes, as well.

At Mount Hood Meadows in Oregon, they're holding periodic demonstrations and offering free test rides.

I was a little anxious about riding the first one, and worth a try.

All right, have fun.

So, very easy to ride, lots of surface area for you to actually have amazing traction, so pretty much anybody can ride it.

Would it increase the days that I come up and am active?

Yeah, absolutely.

Whoo! Oh!

♪♪ Whee!

It isn't always a smooth ride, but falling is part of the fun.

Whee!

And not just for the newbies.

Even for long-time fat bikers.

Never quite know what the outcome is gonna be.

You're often tumbling and hopefully landing in soft snow.

As the climate changes, the outcome for winter sports is unclear, as well.

But the enthusiasm over fat bikes holds promise for people who want to keep places like Mount Hood and the Methow Valley popular winter destinations, regardless of how much snow falls.

Many stroke victims have trouble walking due to an uneven gait, and physical therapy often requires expensive and cumbersome equipment.

Now a mechanical engineer with a passion for helping people and a dedicated physical therapist have teamed up to develop a device that's much easier to use.

Here's the story.

This is the computer-assisted rehabilitation environment, or CARN.

It's housed at the University of South Florida, with a price tag of over a million dollars.

Only a handful of universities utilize them for research.

It's basically a split-belt treadmill, so the two treads can move at different speeds, mounted on a six-degree-of-freedom base, so we can rotate it, twist it, move it up and down, and all around.

It's got a 180-degree screen so you can put virtual-reality environments in front of you.

It has 10 cameras that track markers that we can place in various places on the body.

We use it to understand how people can walk and how we can change their gait patterns.

Dr. Kyle Reid is a mechanical engineer with a passion to help people who need physical therapy.

He decided to create a new device that would be less expensive and more accessible to patients who have difficulty walking.

I had seen a split-belt treadmill, and that was the inspiration for the shoe.

The point of the shoe is that it lets people train in the real world, where they're actually gonna be active and doing the motions that they are going to be walking.

The shoe he's referring to is the Gait Enhancing Mobile Shoe, or GEMS.

Dr. Kyle teamed up with physical-therapist researcher Seok Hun Kim at USF School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences.

The goal -- to develop this new device for stroke survivors.

Individuals with stroke, they tend to put more weight on their good side.

Then, if they don't use their affected side, then you're going to lose it.

This GEM shoe is seven years in development.

After going through several iterations, they came up with a device ready for study.

They're now in the middle of testing the device on stroke survivors.

Diane is the fourth patient to be tested.

Although her stroke occurred seven years ago and caused extensive damage, she was determined to join the study.

In the beginning, I was kind of scared, but I got used to the shoe, so then I think I did pretty good.

As I've been using it, I notice there's some changes at home.

I'm able to walk faster, and my knee moves, and my toes, I've noticed they're starting to move.

And those are a couple of things that didn't happen before.

Dr. Kim has Diane take steps along a gait-measuring walkway that has sensors to measure her walking pattern.

We are comparing their spatial temporal variable.

Spatial means stride length and how each toe's deviated from the linear line, and temporal variable means how long they take step.

We put this shoe on the healthy side, which seems a little counterintuitive, but it's actually working on the impaired side.

In some sense, it makes the healthy leg less stable, and so it is causing them to have to spend more time and try harder to walk with their impaired leg.

Dr. Reid's design is based on the spiral.

Standing on the shoe, there's basically these asymmetric wheels, that as you put down weight, there's an asymmetry of where the axle force is and where the ground-reaction force is, so as you push down on it, it causes the wheel to rotate.

That rotation causes the shoe to go backwards, and so it's mimicking a split-belt treadmill in the sense that, when you step down, it's causing your foot to go backwards.

He's usually present during each evaluation and training.

Sometimes, during the training sessions, there's a piece that breaks or something's not quite working right, so I have to go and grab it, fix it up, and kind of work on it.

Putting it on them and seeing it and getting their feedback is immensely valuable to find out what parts are not working as well so we can redesign those, and to keep the ones that are working very well.

These clinical trials are being run with very strict protocols.

We are looking at the walking pattern -- provide very minimal guidance.

And, also, we have to check blood pressure and respiratory rate, as well as heart rate.

[ Upbeat music plays ]

Sometimes, research engineers like Dr. Reid experiment with their designs.

There's a device we came up with called the 'kinetic board.'

In some sense, it's a very large version of the GEMS.

You actually kind of lean back and forth, and that rocking back and forth motion engages the back wheels and then the front wheels, and that allows you to propel yourself forward.

We've actually found it demonstrates the principal of the GEMS.

Because it's much bigger, you can see it moving.

You can understand how the pieces are working.

Another spin-off we had from it was taking that same wheel shape but putting it on the end of a crutch.

So it's not the entire wheel shape, but it's more of a curve that is asymmetric from front to back.

The same principal as the GEMS -- when you push down, because it's asymmetric, it causes a forward motion that is going to assist you while you're walking on the crutch.

With the kinetic crutch tip, it allows you to plant down, and then once you get into the motion, it will propel you forward.

Whatever the challenge, Dr. Reid is focused on helping people.

I started learning more and more about physical-therapy realm and really just got a passion for it that I wanted to make these devices more effective so they can help people restore their motions that they have.

For test subject Diane, she's well on her way to restoring some functionality to her gait.

For normal overall walking, she improved about 20% of improvement in the walking speed and step length about 10% to 20% so far, and also we can see more symmetrical gait pattern.

We expect it to a certain extent, but the outcome we are looking at is beyond what we expected.

This is very promising.

Well I know I'm never gonna be a 100%, but, you know, I want to get as close to that 100% as possible, and I think that this shoe is really helping out.

The goal is to be able to mass produce the GEM shoe and make it available to all patients in the near future.

I would love to see the GEMS be available at a either rental model or low cost for purchase where people could go into a clinic, learn how it works, and then come back and take it with them to home, and they could train every single day for a month, two months -- however long they need it -- to be able to get to the walking ability that they want.

♪♪

In May of 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo over the Atlantic.

Nearly a century later, his grandson is carrying on the family legacy of innovation.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez spoke to Erik Lindbergh via Google Hangout.

Erik Lindbergh, thanks very much for joining us.

My pleasure.

So, how does Powering Imagination and your company's mission -- it's taking a couple steps from where your grandfather, Charles Lindbergh, left off.

What are you trying to accomplish and why is it such a difficult task?

Aviation and just flight is difficult.

The energy that it takes to get you up in the air, even in an airplane -- the heavier you are, the more energy it takes -- the more energy, the more weight.

So it's a feedback loop that's really difficult to solve.

Gasoline has huge amounts of energy in it, so we've been able to use that since the Wright brothers started flying, and, of course my grandfather -- New York to Paris in 1927.

Batteries don't quite have the same energy density as gasoline, so that's why we're not seeing them flying regularly now.

But this technology promises to be clean and quiet and potentially renewable, and so we need to make that happen faster.

Because, its not -- Like you were saying, it's not only the weight and the noise, but it's the space that you're taking up.

One thing that is so hard to accomplish is just basically a vertical takeoff -- right? -- as opposed to those long landing strips.

How do you even engineer that?

I've been saying that the holy grail of flight or electric flight is sort of clean, quiet, vertical take off.

Now, if you look at drones flying, for example, you see quad copters and they're doing amazing aerobatics and carrying cameras and things.

If we can scale that up so that drones can carry humans, you'll be able to see and envision how we move around in the future.

How do you envision that future?

[ Laughs ] Well, I think -- I've been watching three or four development efforts with vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, so much like quad copters or drones or multiple propellers along the leading edge of an aircraft.

And what this does is it enables us to carry passengers vertically, translate horizontally some amount of distance, depending on the energy we can store in batteries, and then return to Earth.

And I think it will change the way we move around and lessen our dependence on the infrastructure of roads.

So you're really talking about for everyday use, potentially supplementing or replacing cars?

It's a difficult problem, though.

Because gasoline has so much energy, it enables us to fly, even in some cases, like helicopters, vertical takeoff -- translate, land -- but batteries, even though they're powering electric cars, don't have enough energy density, and aircraft are mass-constrained.

It means the amount of volume and space and weight that we can carry in an aircraft is limited.

Batteries aren't quite there yet.

The good news is that billions of dollars are being spent in research and development towards the energy density of batteries, so it's coming.

And when you're talking about energy density, basically they are heavier than gasoline and not providing as much energy as gas does for the same weight.

Just picture the battery in your car.

When it drains out and is all empty of it's energy, it's still weighs a ton.

[ Laughs ] And gasoline, when it burns out, it weighs a lot less.

So an airplane is actually a little bit faster, a little bit more efficient, when its running out of gas.

So is this effort and innovation, is this really being driven by outcry about sustainability and some of the environmental impacts and those issues, or is it more because the technology is now becoming available?

I became aware of electric propulsion for aircraft about nine years ago, and I thought that solved a lot of the problems that I was seeing in aviation -- fuel burn, leaded fuel, noise, renewable energy, Those are the threats that we're seeing in aviation, and one of the biggest threats is noise.

[ Engine roars ] If we can realize electric propulsion for flying in general aviation aircraft, just fixed-wing aircraft, that'll be great.

It'll help make it more pleasant to fly.

If we can start to realize vertical takeoff and landing, it'll shift the way we transport ourselves.

I've flown an electric airplane.

It was incredible.

Really?

It was quiet.

[ Engine hums ] I took off, and I was supposed to put it back down on the runway again, but I decided I was gonna take it around the pattern.

And so I turned to the guy standing on the taxiway while I was flying by, and said, 'I'm gonna go around,' instead of using my microphone, which I'm used to using.

It was that quiet.

When do you think we could reach this 'Jetson's-esque' future?

[ Laughs ] I think we could start to realize this clean, quiet future of flight in the next few years and it's going to start with small, limited-range aircraft.

It may end up being hybrid -- a combination of gas, turbine, and electric.

And I think, within 15 years, we'll start to see regional commuters flying.

Erik Lindbergh, thanks for joining us.

Thank you, Andrea.

A growing body of research highlights the numerous cognitive benefits of playing video games.

Now, researchers at the American Pain Society are saying that video games can even help alleviate pain.

As a result, an increasing number of organizations are getting video games into the hands of patients undergoing medical treatments.

Take a look.

The addicting effect of video games is one an avid gamer can certainly describe.

Once the controller hits the tips of their fingers, they are transported into a world of challenge and excitement.

[ Laughs ]

Oh! Got him. Got him.

The pastime is often criticized and accused of contributing to inactivity and, sometimes, for having a violent influence.

But studies have shown that gaming can do more good than you would expect.

According to the American Pain Society, researchers say virtual reality is proving to be effective in reducing anxiety and acute pain caused by painful medical procedures, and could be useful for treating chronic pain.

Betsy Twohig-Barrett is the president of Cancer Wellness Connections.

The organization in Rochester, New York, brings in various diversionary activities to hospitals for free.

That includes supplying iPads to patients undergoing chemotherapy so they can play games.

If you go into an infusion room, you'll quite often find that most of the patients have got some sort of device that they're playing with.

The study shows that when immersed in the virtual world of gaming, those who are undergoing serious procedures report significantly less stress.

If you're sitting in a chair, strapped into a chair for four or five hours, to find yourself transported to a different realm for those five hours can be greatly beneficial.

Twohig-Barrett was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer last summer.

I'd just had a major birthday milestone and decided I would be an adult and go out and do all of my screenings and such, and, lo and behold, I got the diagnosis.

She finished treatment in the winter.

Twohig-Barrett had been involved with Cancer Wellness Connections for four years because she had a passion to help the cause.

Little did she know she too could soon benefit from the services provided by her own program.

[ Laughs ]

Chronic asthma has profoundly affected the life of 55-year-old patient David Eichel, who returns to the hospital every four weeks for two to three injections that help to reduce the number of asthma attacks he suffers.

I'm a very bad asthmatic.

My lungs are over with.

The former computer programmer hasn't been able to maintain a full-time job in his field for nearly two decades, due to an assortment of illnesses.

I have GERD.

I have birth defects of my feet and ankles.

Yay! What fun.

High blood pressure, diabetes.

There's a big long list.

I literally take over 30 medications every day.

Oh, look, I won!

And when he's feeling down, Eichel picks himself up with a good book every night, followed by his all-time favorite video game.

I just restarted and finished playing 'Serious Sam,' which is a hardcore, shoot-em-up.

But what I like is it's set in ancient Egypt.

[ Chuckling ] I'm also big on the card games -- Solitaire, 'TriPeaks.'

[ Laughs ]

Researchers also find that, when playing 3-D games, the brain busies itself, using other senses like vision and touch and releases endorphins, a chemical that generally makes us feel good.

You hear these wonderful sounds -- [ Beeping ] [ Chuckles ] Dripping sounds -- 'Bloop, bloop!'

[ Laughs ] It's just... You can tell somebody is not in the here and now, they're in the somewhere else, and probably a better place.

And looking ahead, Twohig-Barrett says her genuine hope is that video games can not only relieve pain but alleviate the anxiety of approaching pain, as well.

If you can take away the fear of going in for an infusion -- not that the infusion is going to be hurtful or difficult.

It's the whole process, that you may not feel well afterwards.

Anything you can do is helpful.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪