The Power of Gyroscopes

These simple yet forceful devices are behind several health-benefiting innovations.
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Have you ever heard of a gyroscope? Probably, but you may not know exactly what it is.

All gyroscopes, in essence, consist of a spinning wheel on an axis.

The first gyroscopic effects were noted by German professor Johann Bohnenberger in 1817, but the name and device were invented by French scientist Leon Foucault almost 40 years later, in 1852, in an attempt to demonstrate the earth's rotation.

The basic concept behind a gyroscope is that a spinning object will resist changes to its overall orientation because of the force of the wheel's motion.

Examples of gyroscopic effects can be seen in the behavior of yo-yos, bicycles and cars in motion.

Today, gyroscopes are found in countless appliances, from compasses to artificial horizon devices in aircraft -- even in some innovative devices to improve the quality of people's lives and their health.

Smart Wheels

One of the latest uses of the gyroscope is found in the

iBOT Mobility System from Independence Technology, a division of

Johnson & Johnson

(JNJ) - Get Report

. The iBOT wheelchair ($24,000) was introduced to the market in a soft launch in July 2005.

Multiple gyroscopes within the wheelchair sense any motion, and then those signals are sent to the chair's computer, which enable the motors to adjust and move with the utmost stability. With such sensitive interaction to any environment, the wheelchair helps users feel safe and stable no matter what the terrain.

When a user leans back or reaches forward, the chair will also move with him. This is especially beneficial in maintaining social contact.

"

The iBOT facilities conversations ... especially in a loud place. I don't have a loud voice, so now people don't need to lean over," says Paul Averill, 24, who has been using the chair for two months. Averill was paralyzed after a car accident in 2001, and says that his quiet tone is due to resulting respiratory problems.

Thanks to the gyroscopes, the iBOT chair can also safely raise the user to a more upright position. "This gives me legitimacy and puts me on the same playing field as everyone," explains Averill, who works as an investment banker -- "a very relationship-oriented business," he says.

This raising function can also offer users a much sought-after independence, as they can reach objects on high shelves in a kitchen or at the supermarket.

And it can indeed make it easier to get around a city such as New York, where subways are often not equipped with elevators. "It opens up a lot of opportunities. I can now ride whatever subway I need," says Averill, as the iBOT can climb up and down stairs. Its imbedded gyroscopes adjust to the user's unique center of gravity as it negotiates each step. The chair can even mount curbs up to five inches high and go though snow-covered paths with its four-wheel function.

What are people's reactions to such a high-tech device? Averill responds positively. "I'm not walking around like a circus act. It's kind of natural," he says.

The iBOT wheelchair requires a prescription; potential users must be screened to determine if their condition is suitable for the requirements of the chair. In order to ensure the user's safety, a training program is also necessary.

And while the chair is expensive, keep in mind that some health insurance, veteran's assistance, assistive technology loans and Medicare or Medicaid may cover a portion of the cost.

It's All in the Wrist

Gyroscopes are used in the realm of preventative health care as well. The

powerball, for instance, is a popular device used to build strength in the lower forearm, shoulders and wrist -- ideal for golfers, tennis and baseball players.

An imbedded gyroscope offers resistance as the user moves his or her wrist in small rotations and force builds up within the ball, and a counter on the top keeps track of the revolutions.

The ball comes in several colors -- blue, orange and green -- and not only is it fun to use, but the nonimpact motion can aid conditions such as carpal tunnel, tendonitis, tennis elbow and arthritis.

The powerball is also quite portable, as it is just about the size of a tennis ball. The gyroscopic effect offers an incredible amount of force in such a small package -- from one to 40 pounds of resistance. And it doesn't use batteries or a motor, so there's no need to worry about replacing anything.

The user determines what he or she will get from the powerball: Faster motions will build strength, while slower ones are best for rehabilitation.

At under $50, the powerball is a relatively inexpensive health-boosting accessory. It's available directly from

powerball.com or

ThinkGeek.com.

And the next time you hear the word "gyroscope," you will certainly know what it means.