Face-Controlled Wheelchair Helps Paraplegics Go Mobile
Tiny motions in the eye and jaw could soon allow paraplegics to drive themselves around using a wheelchair powered by facial expressions.
A simple bite tells the chair to stop or go, while a mere blink of the right or left eye tells the wheelchair to turn right or left. The system distinguishes between different facial muscles and addresses an unmet need of those paralyzed from the neck down and people who are gradually losing the use of their muscles due to muscular dystrophy or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), lead researcher Hiroki Tamura at the University of Miyazaki in Japan told DiginfoTV.
"People who can no longer use a joystick still want to move around independently. So we wanted to create a system for controlling an electric wheelchair using the expressive [facial] muscles, which remain functional at a relatively late stage of dystrophy, he added.
As an added safety measure, the high-tech wheelchair can monitor and adjust its own speed automatically.
"We tried controlling the wheelchair's speed using the facial expressive muscles, but that was difficult, Tamura explained. So we've used proximity sensors to detect obstacles. When there aren't any obstacles, the wheelchair speeds up, and when it comes within a certain distance of an obstacle, it slows down. When it gets to within one meter of an obstacle, it stops."
Among the people the new wheelchair could help are those afflicted with ALS. Famous individuals with this condition include Stephen Hawking, the late Christopher Reeves, and baseball legend Lou Gehrig, for whom the disease is sometimes named.
The wheelchair, recently demonstrated at Japan's 2011 Home Care and Rehabilitation Exhibition, is currently controlled via four electrodes attached to strategic places on a person's face and connected to a laptop, but the team says they want to eventually allow control through a wearable goggle.