From ACL tear to Robo Lola

Lola Oyelayo, Director of Strategy & User Experience at Head, sports her custom knee brace.

After being struck down by injury, it's hard to know just how things are progressing while doing physio exercises at home. When runner Lola tore her ACL, her colleagues at digital agency Head joined forces with her to create a unique piece of technology to solve that problem: they made a data-collecting knee brace. 

What’s the backstory behind your injury and the brace?

I’ve always been keen on staying fit and was getting myself back into shape following some time off. I was running between 5-10K, two or three times a week and supplementing it with sessions with my personal trainer who was helping me work towards a Tough Mudder event. We were sprint training along a quiet road and I’d consciously chosen to run on the road as pavements can be uneven and I thought it was a safer option. Unfortunately, I hadn’t bargained for an unmarked speed bump which I hit flat out causing my left leg to hyperextend. 

I tore the anterior cruciate ligament and it was absolute agony. I’ll need an operation to reattach the ligament which is booked for January. In the meantime, I’ve been wearing a rather fetching leg brace which holds the leg in position and protects it. It’s earned me the nickname Robo Lola in the digital agency where I work.

What made you develop the data-collecting knee brace?

Before I have the operation there’s a period of prehab where I have to strengthen the leg. This should make the prospects of full recovery from the operation better as the leg will be stronger. I’ve been doing a lot of physiotherapy, but I only see my physio Jessica Harland twice a week. In the interim I was left wondering if I was doing the exercises correctly, if I was doing too much or not enough. The lack of information was frustrating as I’m a bit of a control freak, so my colleagues and I decided to look at what we could do to make this dumb leg brace smarter.

There are lots of fitness and training apps on the market, but barley anything was geared towards recovering from an injury, so we developed our own. After speaking to Jess, we decided to produce a device that would attach to the brace to monitor the amount of bend in my knee and the number of steps I was managing each day. It’s a bit of a Heath Robinson contraption, but we’ve tried to keep it as simple and unobtrusive as possible. I will wear it on my ankle after the operation to provide me and my physio with a record of my progress.

What will be the next step after your operation?

The idea is that I will wear a fully functional brace and let the data collecting begin after my op. At the moment I’m almost back to walking normally, so we will use the monitor to provide a benchmark that we can work towards after the operation. Full recovery from this type of op takes about a year - by having access to data showing my recovery, it will hopefully reassure me that I am doing all I can to aid the process. My physio will also be able to access the information, which should make our sessions together more productive and informed.

One of the biggest issues with an injury like this is the fear and worry. You don’t really know what to expect and how well you’re progressing. Recovery is not always linear and you can have set backs. I hope that the monitor will provide some level of reassurance that I am getting better, and for a competitive person like me, there is an element of trying to beat your own recovery time. But also, if things aren’t going well, I’ll be able to see that it’s happening rather than having a nagging feeling that something isn’t right.

Ultimately I want to get back to being as close to the fitness I had before the injury – I was starting to feel pretty invincible. That may not be possible, but that’s the ambition, and I’ll get on that Tough Mudder course yet.

Is this something you’d consider developing for the mainstream market? 

Absolutely, if the data that is collected proves to be valuable. At the moment the hardware is rather inelegant and could be less obtrusive, robust and easy to set up and use, but this could happen. The ACL is a common sports injury, but the monitor could also have potential uses for other types of medical device, such as back braces, where data on the wearer could affect their recovery.

When you are in recovery, you can actually risk other injuries by doing your physio incorrectly or by over-compensating. You are not sure how hard to push yourself. I was told to push past discomfort but to stop short of pain. It’s hard to know where that point is exactly. Technology may be able to help. I don’t want to risk other injuries while trying to recover from this one.

Technology: Making Robo Lola

A potentiometer was mounted over the pivot point of the knee on the brace to measure the knee bend.

A Particle Photon microcontroller receives input from the potentiometer, stores it on an SD card and sends data to the cloud. The data in question is steps taken and the range the knee bends between 0 and 110 degrees.

The Photon is an inexpensive, tiny, piece of kit with an onboard Wi-Fi antennae and cost $19. All other components did not exceed £20. Mobile phone charging batteries provided just over 24 hours of recording time.

Other elements included Meccano and an Allen key to construct the potentiometer pivot arm, a lot of Velcro and some Sugru mouldable glue to add a bit of weather proofing.