Though there are a variety of prosthetic limbs that address the motor deficits associated with amputation, there has been relatively little progress in restoring sensation. Prosthetic limbs provide little direct sensory feedback of the forces they encounter in the environment, but “closing the loop” between sensation and action can make a great difference in performance .
For users of lower limb prostheses, stair descent is a difficult and dangerous task. The difficulty in stair descent can be attributed to three different factors: 1) Absence of tactile and haptic sensations at the bottom of the foot. Although force on the prosthetic socket provides some haptic feedback of the terrain being stepped on, this feedback does not provide information on the location of the staircase edge. 2) Insufficient ankle flexion of lower limb prostheses. Dorsiflexion of the physiological ankle during stair descent is about 27°. Even prostheses that provide active dorsiflexion provide less than this number, and regular prostheses provide almost no ankle dorsiflexion. The first two factors are analogous to the sensation of stair descent for someone without amputation wearing ski boots. 3) Prosthetic feet are optimized for flat-ground walking, offering undesirable energy storage at ankle flexion and energy return at toe-off. This can result in unwanted extra energy at the end of stance phase, propelling the user forward down the stairs.
Most lower limb prosthesis designs focus on flat ground walking, but there has been less progress in addressing the challenges of stair descent. One technique that users of prosthetic lower limbs can use for addressing these challenges is to employ an “overhanging toe” foot placement strategy. Under this strategy, the edge of the staircase is used as a pivot point for the foot to roll over the stair. This reduces the need for ankle flexion by allowing the knee and hip to compensate, and avoids storing energy in the prosthetic spring. This strategy is dynamic, and requires the user to know the amount of toe overhang to adjust the movement of the rest of the body. Most haptic devices built to assist individuals wearing prostheses focus on upper extremity tasks [2–4] or standing and walking [5,6]. Whereas previous lower limb sensory replacement systems have targeted standing measures, here we focus on stair descent. The system provides cues of the stair edge location via vibrotactile stimulations on the thigh.