Small device could warn you if you’ve been too still at your desk

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Many people experience pain from sitting at a desk for too long

Many people experience pain from sitting at a desk for too long

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A small sensor worn on the neck containing origami-like folded wires can monitor how much we move while sedentary, and prompt people to get up and exercise.

More than 100 million people in Europe experienced musculoskeletal disorders such as neck and shoulder pain in 2020 – a legacy of the changing way we work. But moving regularly while sitting can prevent problems.

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Zhengbao Yang at City University of Hong Kong and his colleagues have developed small, stretchable sensors that are powered by piezoelectricity – charge that is generated through squeezing or stressing suitable materials.

The sensor monitors the movement of the neck and is powered by two layers of piezoelectric material folded in a structure from kirigami, which is related to the art of origami or paper folding.

When the wearer moves, the sensor deforms and sends charge to a microcontroller that can register the movement with an accuracy of 95 per cent, displaying this on a computer. “We can use this material to convert stress to voltage, then we can measure the joint motion using that,” says Yang.

If the wearer doesn’t move their neck or shoulders more than 10 times in every half hour, a prompt is displayed on the computer.

“The sensor offers a new and novel design within a small package which is ideal for placement on the body,” says Jonathan Aitken at the University of Sheffield, UK. “The sensor clearly succeeds in the general aim to indicate inactivity, although it would be interesting to delve further into its characteristics, reliability and sensitivity.”

Aitken says this could help generate more fine-grained monitoring of motion that would make the sensor more powerful.

For Yang, the sensor could move from the lab to real life as it is. “We already have a patent on this technology,” he says. “We’re thinking about how to license this patent to local industry, to bring benefits to society.”

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abf0795

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