U of C HPL puts on a show

More than ever we depend on the scientific analysis of human performance–from orthotic footwear to physiotherapy–to overcome the myriad of problems associated with locomotion. Imagine a state-of-the-art facility with the ability to rapidly diagnose muscular and skeletal deficiencies and offer optimal solutions. The U of C’s Human Performance Laboratory is a step toward this paradigm and it isn’t as distant as one might think.

For Mechanical Engineering ph.d. student Carol Scovil, the leap forward begins one step at a time–literally! The goal of her research is to model every aspect of a single gait cycle or step, by combining classic biomechanical knowledge with information supplied by electromyogram technology which is used to monitor muscle activity during contraction.

"Eventually, we’d like to be capable of producing a complete locomotion simulation for any individual," said Scovil as her computer monitor displayed the fruit of her labour: a pair of legs in a walking motion with arrows showing the various forces at work. "This could be particularly helpful when dealing with patients that have suffered a severely broken leg, resulting in a drastic change in the forces at play. In this case, for example, we might discover that strengthening a certain muscle group would greatly ease the strain on the patient’s body."

Of course, the applications of the technology being researched at the hpl are not restricted to medical science. Dr. Gerald Cole, adjunct professor of biomechanics in charge of functional footwear analysis is one of many researchers that share approximately $1 million from major corporate sponsors, including Adidas, a major stakeholder in the footwear market.

"The goal of the project is to be able to perform fast, functional, repeatable tests of athletic footwear," said Cole, clearly a man who loves his work. "Ultimately, we hope to have a system that is stable and reliable enough to be sold on the open market and used extensively to improve the process of footwear design."

The project’s main component is a monstrous electronic device that manipulates a central circular platform as directed by the output of a computer. By "replying" to the computer with millions of packages of information about the forces and torques being exerted upon its moving parts, the machine supplies information for lab staff to perform quick, comprehensive tests with the click of a button.

A major advantage of this scheme is that, with a little computational dexterity, technicians can model an anomalous walking pattern in biomechanics software, as in Scovil’s research, and redirect the data to the machine. After this process, they have the equivalent of a human subject in the lab, upon whom they can perform innumerable tests in rapid succession without worrying about physical strain, injury, or remuneration.

Despite the flurry of scientific discovery that characterized the twentieth century, the human body and its mechanics have remained among the most difficult enigmas for the academic community. No matter how much progress is made, new questions will arise to be tackled and solved by great minds. At the moment, the U of C and its hpl are at the forefront of this research, and it doesn’t appear that their position is going to waver any time soon.