‘My God, it’s better’: Emma can write again thanks to a prototype watch, raising hope for Parkinson’s disease
The Emma Watch and a special Windows 10 tablet that controls it.
Engraved on the watch is a name – “emma” – in breezy lettering that, to Lawton’s eyes, looks eerily similar to her own handwriting. Impossible, however. She’s been unable to write legibly for years due to hand tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease. Lawton, a graphic designer, was diagnosed with the movement disorder in 2013, destroying her ability to do two things sacred to her: drawing letters and lines.
Those losses inspired Zhang, a Microsoft researcher, to spend months studying Parkinson’s disease while building and testing prototypes that could, she hoped, temporarily short-circuit the hand tremors, allowing Lawton to write her own name again. That’s why the two women now huddle closely in Lawton’s London flat, staring at the only watch of its kind.
“There was a lot hanging in that moment. Would it work?” Lawton recalls later. “I could see she was scared. I felt like I was going to cry. But you always have that little hope that somebody is going to make something that’s going to make your life a little easier.”
Zhang presses a button on the tablet, activating the watch. Lawton puts pen to paper.
Haiyan Zhang on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.
Zhang was born in China. At age 9, she migrated with her parents to Australia where she was the only Asian child in her primary school, an oddity to classmates. As an outsider, the once vocal and confident girl lost her strong voice, and it took a l0ng time to find it again, she wrote in a blog. Eventually, in the world of technology, Zhang soared. She joined Microsoft in 2012, initially leading an innovation team in one of the Xbox gaming studios, excited by the tech potential for new forms of play.
“I was really excited to have someone so clever work on my challenge,” Lawton says. “She’s one of the smartest people I know.”
Lawton was born in Bedfordshire, a county in the east of England. She dreamed of acting but ultimately fell in love with design, pursuing that as a career. By her late 20s, Lawton’s right arm began to have “a mind of its own,” she wrote in her book, “Dropping the P Bomb.” Parkinson’s was the cause. Hand tremors, which Lawton describes as sometimes “going whole hog,” are a primary symptom of her progressive disease – one that affects more than 10 million in the world.
“Emma’s the real inspiration in terms of how she’s managing this condition and succeeding,” Zhang says. “It’s challenging enough being a woman in technology in the workplace. For her to take on this additional challenge, it’s amazing to me.”
As they got to know one another, the question became: Could Zhang’s tech skills help alleviate Lawton’s loss of writing function?