Exciting new developments are well underway in the mobility assistance realm. That’s very good news for the roughly 2.2 million Americans who depend on wheelchairs for day-to-day mobility. Currently available wheelchairs give users additional freedom of movement, and that is a very valuable gift. The new high-tech wheelchairs move a step beyond that, and effectively re-integrate these individuals into society, because there will be no more need to look for wheelchair ramps and there may be no more standing out in a crowd.
The Whill Wheelchair
The San Francisco-based startup has raised over $30 million for its high-tech wheelchairs, and company officials predict that doctors may start writing prescriptions for the gadgets within a year.
Founder Satoshi Sugi said he found inspiration from his wheelchair-using neighbour. The man said he no longer went out in public unless it was absolutely necessary, because using a wheelchair made him feel crippled and weak. So, Mr. Sugi wanted to design something “that would make the user feel confident and cool.” The result is a Professor X-looking wheelchair that may have accomplished Mr. Sugi’s purpose.
Instead of two main wheels, the self-powered wheelchair has two large wheels that consist of twenty-four separate tires. So, the wheelchair is incredible mobile, offering a 360-degree turning radius. Control is almost effortless as well, as the control device is similar to moving a computer mouse on a mouse pad. The chair even has a four wheel drive mode for uneven terrain.
However, the Whill faces an uncertain future. Critics charge that the wheelchair is essentially existing technology in a new package, but given the coming explosion of the over-65 population, and the fact that many of these individuals embrace high technology, the Whill may very well find a market niche.
On the other hand, this innovative wheelchair, which debuted in 1998, may have been so high-tech that it was ahead of its time. DEKA founder Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway, essentially made a Segway for mobility-impaired individuals.
At first blush, the iBot is jarring. Its unique design brings users eye-level with people who walk on two legs. The wheels can even deploy in a way that enables users to climb staircases. Furthermore, the iBot’s navigation system is one of the most sophisticated ones ever developed. An on-board computer handles most of this activity, and it will even adjust the iBot if it senses that the wheelchair is about to topple over.
Miracles like this one do not come cheaply, and the iBot’s massive $28,000 sticker price forced the company to discontinue the high-tech wheelchair. But in 2016, DEKA and Toyota formed a partnership to bring the iBot back to life.
Panisonic’s Self-Driving Wheelchair
When the Olympics come to Tokyo in 2020, company officials plan for self-driving wheelchairs to literally meet mobility-impaired visitors as they deplane or enter the terminal.
Users may summon an autonomous wheelchair using a smartphone app. The wheelchair will then take the person to a designated check-in point before moving to their departure gate or the front door. Then, the device scoots off in search of the next airport patron who needs some mobility assistance. At the end of the day, the autonomous wheelchairs park themselves in a storage and recharge area.
Upgrading Your Ride
If all these innovations seem a little too fanciful and/or cost prohibitive, there are some things you can do right now to create your own high-tech wheelchair. There are a lot of very nice wheelchair add-ons that are readily available. They all look cool and make your life a little bit easier. Another way to simplify things is to stick with the familiar. Travel routes that take you to places and people that you know well. When the wanderlust strikes, and it almost always does, there is safety in numbers, so team up with a wheelchair buddy.
Regardless of your station in life, there is a high-tech wheelchair out there that’s right for you.