Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Prosthetic flipper could help amputees swim

From Wired Magazine:

Thanks to modern mechanical prosthetics, complete with hydraulics and microprocessors, missing a limb needn’t mean missing much. Except when it comes to swimming. Artificial appendages for the water are still rudimentary: Most resemble clip-on canoe paddles for hands or kiddie flippers for feet—clunky versions of their nimble landlubbing brethren.

So, inspired by amputee sprinters like Aimee Mullins (whose extensive collection of prosthetic legs includes creations by the late designer Alexander McQueen), Swedish industrial design student Richard Stark developed an elegant, water-friendly prosthetic called the Neptune.

“I wanted users to be able to choose from a variety of colors, like with shoes,” he says. But to make sure form didn’t drown function, Stark teamed up with a pair of competitive amputee swimmers and their coaches to solve the problems amputees encounter in the pool.

The fin is divided into three “fingers”—a stiff digit in the middle flanked by two pliable ones—which allows wearers to emulate the vaguely circular motion of treading water; swimmers can use the slider to adjust the Neptune’s flexibility to match their strength. And in a modification suggested by one of the amputees, the fin can rotate 90 degrees to switch from the sideways kick of the breaststroke to the up-and-down motion of the crawl.

When Stark finished the project, he published photos and a video online and was surprised at how quickly the Neptune garnered a response.

“Amputees all around the world were asking me if they could order it,” he says. Stark is trying to sell the concept as he pursues his master’s degree, but many insurance policies don’t cover a prosthetic that’s strictly for swimming. So Stark will have to simplify his design and get the cost down to something people will be willing to pay out of pocket—hopefully less than $350.