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Versatile iBot Wheelchair to Make a Comeback

By John P. Mello Jr.
May 24, 2016 12:59 PM PT

Toyota and DEKA Research and Development last week announced an agreement that will revive development of the iBot, a wheelchair that can climb stairs.

The companies revealed their pact to develop mobility solutions for the disabled community at the annual convention of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

One of the first initiatives under the agreement will be to resurrect the iBot, which uses a balancing technology similar to the Segway's that allows it to perform tasks such as climbing stairs.

The motorized chair has two sets of wheels that can be rotated to allow it to negotiate stairs. It also allows an operator to go from a sitting position to a standing configuration of about 6 feet and remain mobile, which makes it easier to talk and walk with a companion.

Toyota will license DEKA's balancing technologies for medical rehabilitative therapy and potentially other purposes.

Ahead of Its Time

Plans for the iBot were first aired in 2001, but DEKA -- which was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen -- and partner Johnson & Johnson couldn't get the price of the wheelchairs below US$25,000. They stopped making them in 2009.

"When Johnson & Johnson were producing those wheelchairs, they were developing a technology that was well ahead of its time, so a lot of things they were using were probably very expensive," noted Hermano Krebs, a principal research scientist at MIT's Newman Laboratory for Biomechanics and Human Rehabilitation.

"They were not able to reduce the price or get the right reimbursement for the device, so J&J stopped producing the iBot," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Technologies like accelerometers, gyroscopes and many other things have evolved in the last 15 years that could amount to a significant reduction in cost," Krebs said. "That's why Toyota is interested in restarting the concept."

Life Changer

The wheelchairs could have a significant impact on a person's life, noted Krebs, who had an opportunity to sit in one of the original iBot production models.

"It was an exciting experience. You can only imagine what it's like for a body that's been bound in a traditional motorized wheelchair to have the ability to go up stairs and to go through terrains that before they could not go," he said.

"It expands quite significantly the number of things they can do in an independent fashion," Krebs added.

The iBot is part of a new generation of wheelchairs that aim to bring style and panache to the devices -- devices like the Whill Model M, a futuristic-looking wheelchair with four-wheel drive introduced earlier this year.

"Whill treats the users of these devices as consumers," said Whill Marketing Director Chris Koyama.

"I think the conventional way of thinking of them is as patients -- strictly medical -- which is why wheelchairs are strictly functional," he told TechNewsWorld.

Marrying Function and Design

Whill covers the functional aspect of a wheelchair, but it covers an emotional aspect as well. "We believe that the emotional aspect of the industry is lacking," Koyama said.

That emotional aspect of a product is expressed in design. "Design is all around us -- in our homes, in our electronics," he explained. "When you look at conventional wheelchairs, they lack that aspect."

What's more, traditional wheelchairs don't take into account the individuality of their operators.

"We believe people have certain lifestyles. We try to keep in mind how people live their lives, especially if they want to lead an active lifestyle," Koyama said.

"That's why our chair has four-wheel drive, so people don't have to think twice if they're going over grass or gravel. That's why our chairs can go over a 3-inch curb while other chairs can do an inch or maybe 2 inches," he noted.

"Active people go a lot difference places," Koyama added, "so we needed to consider a lot of different environments."


John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.


Salesforce Commerce Solution Guide
Has technology made transportation more or less safe?
Traveling by all modes of transportation has become riskier with each passing year.
In general, transportation safety has been improving steadily, despite some failures.
Some modes of transportation have been improving while others have become less safe.
We may have reached a tipping point where more tech means less safety.
Don't blame the tech -- greedy companies haven't done adequate testing.
Government regulators have not been playing a strong enough oversight role.
Salesforce Commerce Solution Guide
Salesforce Commerce Solution Guide