Figur8’s sensors can track body movement with astonishing levels of accuracy

The days when wearable devices were capable of tracking the number of steps you took and nothing else are over. In 2019, there’s no shortage of impressive wearables that are capable of doing everything from tracking different types of workouts to reading heart rates and potentially telling you when something is wrong.

A new startup created by a former Google research and development lead and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Sports Science Lab wants to take things in a new direction, however.

Called Figur8, the company has developed on-body sensor patches that promise to measure musculoskeletal performance and recovery in a way that’s not been possible previously without resorting to clunky and expensive imaging technology. In doing so, its 3D micrometer-precise analysis of muscle activity and joint mobility could be used for everything from helping track elite athletes to diagnosing mobility-impeding conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Its creators claim that it can even outperform gold-standard screening tools like MRIs and X-rays in certain conditions.

“Soft tissue injuries can sometimes go undetected by an X-ray or MRI,” CEO and founder Dr. Nan-Wei Gong told Digital Trends. “With Figur8’s technology, patients establish a baseline assessment of movement that clinicians can reference whenever they are assessing an injury. Having the ability to compare current musculoskeletal health to the patient’s baseline provides more insight into the severity of a soft tissue injury like a sprain or strain. The baseline can also act as a guide for when a patient should feel comfortable returning to an activity without risking re-injury or injury to another part of the body due to overcompensation.”

Gong said that she was inspired to develop the technology after suffering from back pain for many years. “After consulting several doctors and physical therapists, it was obvious to me that there was no standardized way to evaluate musculoskeletal health,” she said. “Most of the diagnostics were limited to ranking my pain on a scale of 1 to 10 or visual assessments of my activity.”

Her idea was to create a tool that made it possible to place sensors on a person’s body so they could undergo a movement assessment with a clinician within minutes. Figur8’s technology can provide detailed insights, including that a person’s right stride is longer than their left, that they favor one leg over the other, or even that they have slight tremors that may be indicative of early onset neurological disease.

“Instead of capturing surface information, such as number of steps or heart rate, Figur8 uses patented sensor technology to capture data on muscle activity and joint mobility,” Gong said. “That data is then interpreted by clinicians to make a better-informed diagnosis or to prescribe treatment.”