For a company best known for its search engine, Google is making big investments in the medical field: A contact lens to help diabetics monitor their glucose levels; magnetic nano particles to detect signs of cancer and impending heart attacks.
And now, spoons.
Its latest medical venture is the Liftware spoon, which could make life easier for the millions of people who live with Parkinson's disease or with essential tremor, a nervous system disorder that causes rhythmic shaking.
Developed by health technology company Lift Labs, which Google acquired in September for an undisclosed sum, the spoon comes embedded with an electronic device that uses hundreds of algorithms to sense how a hand is shaking. It then uses "active cancellation" (used in noise-canceling headphones), in which tiny motors in the handle move the spoon opposite to the tremor to help keep the spoon steady.
In clinical trials, the spoons reduced shaking by an average of 76%.
Lift Labs founder Anupam Pathak started work on the electronic spoon in grad school while researching motion stabilization. Because Parkinson's disease affects more than 1 million people in America alone, he wanted to see if he could help those whose hand tremors prevent them from performing basic tasks like feeding themselves.
"People have tried to help solve this problem before, but the process involved stopping the person's hand from moving," Pathak said. "You can imagine, if my hand was shaking and you came over and tried to stop it, you'd need a lot of force. So people came up with these braces and expensive contraptions, but that requires a lot of structure and it's often painful and uncomfortable for the user."
Such bulky contraptions also draw unwanted attention to users, many of whom are already self-conscious about their tremors.
"It's a problem with social isolation," Pathak said. "A lot of people avoid going outside and being with friends because of it. So the approach we took was to keep the user in mind and design with empathy."
The current version of the spoon has a chunky handle that holds the motor and sensors, which move a thousand times per second to stabilize the spoon. It sells for $295.
Pathak has plans to create more attachments so it can be used as a multipurpose tool. The team at Google is also looking into adding sensors that relay information about users' tremors to their medical caregivers so they can monitor their condition.
UC San Francisco Medical Center neurologist Dr. Jill Ostrem, who specializes in movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease and essential tremor, helped advise the inventors as they developed Liftware.
"I have some patients who couldn't eat independently. They had to be fed, and now they can eat on their own," she said. "It doesn't cure the disease — they still have a tremor — but it's a very positive change."