Measuring a person's gait — or a person's manner of walking — can reliably predict how likely they are to fall. Such tests can be crucial preventative tools for those with compromised balance, such as the elderly or those with Parkinson's disease. But these tools aren't always available to every patient, can be expensive, and don't always reflect everyday walking conditions.

The good news is that researchers from Purdue University have come up with an ingenious and simple way to modify a smartphone so that it measures a user's gait while they go about their day, reports The innovation, which is being called SmartGait, could save users boatloads on health care costs, as well as help health care workers more effectively monitor their patients.

"We know that people who are more likely to fall have slower gait speeds and variable stride time, step length and step width. But it's hard to gather that information in an everyday environment," said Shirley Rietdyk, an associate professor in Purdue University's Department of Health and Kinesiology.

SmartGait can be utilized on just about any conventional smartphone. The phone requires minor modifications: a downward-looking wide-angle lens, and a special app that performs the measurements. Patients then attach the smartphone to a belt, and the system records a person's gait by measuring the distance between colored foot markers which are placed on the tops of each shoe. Gait length, gait width and walking speed can all be accurately assessed. It is the first fully-portable device ever devised for such purposes.

Compared against the top-of-the-line laboratory equipment typically used for measuring gait, SmartGait's accuracy of topped out at between 90 and 95 percent, but at a fraction of the cost.

"The beauty of SmartGait is that it gives you results similar to a system that costs several tens of thousands of dollars," explained Babak Ziaie, a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "People can wear it walking upstairs, downstairs, outside, shopping, whatever they do during a normal day."

Data collected by the device will provide health care officials with ready information for recommending fall-prevention measures to their patients, such as exercise, physical therapy or vision correction. A patient could also potentially use the device to self-correct their gait in real-time as they walk about.

The technology will be most useful for the elderly, who are at the most risk for fall-related injuries. In 2010 alone, about 21,700 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries, and 2.3 million nonfatal fall injuries were treated in emergency departments.

"Reducing the fall rate has so many benefits – preventing injuries, minimizing pain, maintaining independence and saving lives," said Rietdyk.

You can view a video showcasing SmartGait here:

Related on MNN:

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Can a smartphone prevent the elderly from falling?
The SmartGait innovation could help patients with compromised balance by analyzing how they walk.