A Pair of Teams Develops a Pair of Smart Gloves

Aug. 13, 2021

smart gloves design concept.jpg

Digital drawings of a glove, seen from three different angles.
Paul Efron commissioned Interdisciplinary Capstone students to create a glove that can measure how much weight its wearer is lifting.

Paul Efron, who completed his master’s degree in energy systems engineering in 1987, is constantly jotting down ideas for inventions, like when he set up a gym in his apartment that used a chin-up bar instead of a lat pulldown machine. To increase his number of reps, Efron rested his feet on a stool to support some of his weight. The problem with the setup was that Efron didn’t know how much he was actually lifting.

“Am I making it really easy for myself, or am I killing myself?” he said, wondering “What if I had gloves that could measure and display how much weight I’m lifting?”

So, he added another idea to his list.

When a collaborator the University of Arizona mentioned the College of Engineering’s Interdisciplinary Capstone to him, he thought it sounded like a great opportunity to provide students with some real-world experience and test out one of his ideas. He’d acted as a judge in the Eller College of Management’s Entrepreneurship Program for years and really enjoyed working with students.

Efron sponsored a project in the 2020-2021 academic year, and the students came up with a solid design. He even asked them to add an element after they’d already begun work: Find a way to measure what he called “time over tension.” For example, if someone lifted 10 pounds and held it up for 1 second, could they find a way to quantify that he lifted 10 pound-seconds? This could change the way individuals work out. Rather than specifying a set amount of several different exercises, a person could set a goal in a workout to exert, say, 750 pound-minutes.

“It could also be used in industry settings to quantify how much effort a person is exerting using their arms,” he said. “For example, OSHA could use it to standardize the amount of work a person will do. Maybe they’re not supposed to do more than 1,200 pound-minutes a day, or whatever number they set.”

At the end of the school year, Efron issued a patent for the glove and included the students’ names on it.

“They all deserved it,” he said. “So now, even if it doesn’t become a patent, they still get to put on their resume ‘patent pending.’ When you’re first out of college and looking for a job and a potential employer sees that, it gives you a way to stand out.”

However, the design didn’t quite work. Efron compares it to the Wright Brothers’ early designs for an airplane at Kitty Hawk. They crashed. But each design was an important step forward. In the case of the gloves, the problem was with the sensors. To capture all the weight being lifted, or the force being exerted in something like a chin up, the glove needed a sensor array. But sensors small and flexible enough to fit inside a glove are prohibitively expensive.

Efron identified two potential solutions: 1. Develop better sensors to create an affordable and effective sensor array. 2. Place a small tube in the glove, and using hydraulics, redirect all of the force to one spot where a sensor is located.

He decided to sponsor two separate projects in the 2021-2022 academic year, with one team working on each idea. They’ll both have access to the existing prototype. He thought a friendly sense of competition might be a good source of motivation for students and allow him to see which design plays out better.

“One of the two solutions could very well be a good solution for the problem,” he said. “It still might be like the airplane that crashed at Kitty Hawk, but leave us far enough along to know that the hydraulics could work or the sensors could work. If you do nothing, you have nothing. I’d rather do this and have the potential of having something and have fun along the way. I’d rather see if it can fly.”

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