Most of us take it for granted that we're going to stay balanced, but about 90 million Americans will experience problems with balance at some point in their life due to vision loss, certain neurological problems, damage to the inner ear or just aging.
"Sometimes, I find that if I'm not paying attention, I run into doorways because I'm not walking straight," says Fred Kawabata who has balance problems.
Now, an experimental device is already helping some people like Fred. It's a device that provides feedback. So the person with balance trouble can listen their way to stability. It gives audio cues with different tones and volumes to warn Fred if he's leaning forward, backward, or sideways, much like a carpenter's level.
"This tone, which is really low in volume, tells us that the subject is in a really stable position. That sound is able to make Fred aware of this possibility of fall and is able also to tell Fred what to do in order to prevent the fall," says Marco Dozza, MS an Electrical Engineer at the University of Oregon HSC.
Infrared light from cameras reflect off the balls and provide more data to help researchers analyze movement. It's still experimental at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center, but researchers there say they hope to begin testing the device soon on people with balance problems caused by diabetes and Parkinson's disease.
Engineers are also working to develop a wireless and portable version that people could use in their homes. Some patients who have already tested the device say they have almost doubled the amount of time in their "safe zone", which describes that straight up area in which they are not in danger of falling.