Mobile mobility: Ottawa company invents smartphone-piloted wheelchair
Ke Wang was 32 when he was hit by a car.
The software and automation engineer had a new house, a new daughter, a new consulting company.
“It was one of those freak accidents,” he said.
And it left him in a wheelchair and without the use of his right hand.
“Once you become disabled, your world changes. Everything is different,” he said.
“You have to learn everything all over again. How to shower, how to wash yourself, how to eat. I was right-handed. Now I can only use my left hand.”
That was 10 years ago.
It took seven before Wang was able to live in his house again and have a normal day-to-day life. Even then, any time his wheelchair was a few feet away, he was stranded.
“In the mornings, my wife usually helps me to get ready. But she also needs to drop my daughter to school. So a lot of the time what happens is I end up being all dressed and ready to go, but I can’t do anything because my power chair is in the closet a few feet away from me and my wife is delayed dropping my daughter off. So I end up stuck in bed, no way to go. And if I have an appointment that day, or have some work that needs to be done, there’s nothing that I can do about it, even if I can see my chair a few feet away from me.”
Then he had an epiphany: What if he could bring the chair to him?
Wang founded Eightfold Technologies, a company that’s spent nine months so far developing a smartphone application to remotely control a power wheelchair.
The SmartChair app, which can be controlled with a fingertip, sends a signal to a box installed on the chair, which is hooked into the wheelchair’s joystick, making it move. It’s compatible with all power wheelchairs that use a traditional mechanical joystick.
This technology lets people like Wang bring their wheelchairs to them across a room, or sit on a couch and and have the wheelchair drive away so that it no longer blocks their view of the TV.
“Almost all of this comes down to independence,” said Edward Lemaire, a researcher at the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre and a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Ottawa. He’s also an advisor on the project.
“Being in traffic, think about how frustrating that is. You’re stuck in traffic, you’re going nowhere, you need to get somewhere. Imagine if that’s your everyday. You’re sitting in a chair, you can’t get to your [wheel]chair. All you need to do is get it closer so you can transfer in, and then start going somewhere.”
Eightfold has yet to set a price on the SmartChair system, though Wang says the company is aiming to make it affordable to as many people as possible.
A path forward
SmartChair is three to six months from release, but they’re already trying to make it smarter, Wang said.
They’re designing a wheelchair to travel independently on a pre-set path through someone’s home. Sensors stop the chair if it detects an object in its path to prevent people from bumping into things.
It’s especially useful for people who have limited mobility in their hands and have trouble operating the joystick controls of a regular wheelchair or even directly controlling the chair on their phone – a voice command or single button tap will set the chair on its way.
“That part of the technology is aimed to help people who are severely injured. If they want to go anywhere, they basically have to get their attendant carer to drive them there,” Wang said.
“With our technology, you can lay down a line on the floor and then the chair will follow the line and then all the person has to do is say, ‘I want to go to the living room,’ or push a button, and the chair will follow the line and go to the living room for them.”
Users would work with occupational therapists to determine the most useful paths through their homes, Wang said. Lines could also be drawn on bus ramps or elevators.
That’s at least a year away. But they’re already getting good feedback, Wang said.
“People who can use it, they get it.”