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Emma fights tremor

Smartwatches may not be as hot as they used to be, but that doesn’t mean wrist-worn wearables are dead altogether.

Far from it, actually. Take the Emma Watch, a wrist wearable created by Microsoft Research Innovation Director Haiyan Zhang that’s designed to help reduce the hand tremors people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease live with.

With the Emma Watch, Zhang was able to help graphic designer Emma Lawton, who has Parkinson’s, write and sketch again.

It’s this mission to use technology to empower the human condition that is at the heart of everything Microsoft does, CEO Satya Nadella said at this year’s Build developers conference.

Introduced on the BBC’s The Big Life Fix last December, the Emma Watch has catapulted Zhang to fame. The reception for the Emma Watch has been overwhelmingly positive and she says she’s received hundreds of messages from people interested in the device.

With no cure to Parkinson’s and slow advances in medical and surgical solutions that have yet to yield any sweeping improvements, researchers and developers like Zhang are turning to technology to fill the void.

According to Microsoft, the Emma Watch employs “vibrating motors — similar to those found in mobile phones — to distract the brain into focusing on something other than trying to control the patient’s limbs.”

The motors create vibrations to counter a Parkinson’s patient’s tremors, effectively stabilizing them. Lawton credits the Emma Watch’s stabilization for restoring her ability to write and draw again — skills she needs as a graphic designer.

If not for Zhang’s invention, Lawton says she would have given up on being a graphic designer and looked for another career where her tremors wouldn’t negatively impact her work.

“It’s a bit of a modern-day miracle — someone not being able to write and draw and then being able to do it again,” Lawton says. “And the watch continues to work. It fills me with joy that it wasn’t just a one-off, a fluke. I get foot cramps, so I’m going to try wearing it around the house on my ankle and see whether that helps. You never know.”

Though the Emma Watch is a game changer, there’s still a long way to go — “many years” — before it can be commercialized, which is admittedly a bummer. Still, that Zhang was able to use technology to create a solution that works better than existing medical or surgical solutions is promising, and opens the door for more developers to do the same.