By Gabriella McNevin and Donald Rock (COM ’17)
A man in a wheelchair is home alone when he accidentally maneuvers too close to a staircase. One wheel passes over the edge of the top stair, and the wheelchair teeter-totters on the brink. Instinctively, the man jerks his arms upwards to regain balance, but he can’t. He and the heavy wheelchair tumble down the steps.
The wheelchair and the man are suited for this situation. The man and his chair are connected to devices that transmit information through the Internet to the man’s health care provider. The caretaker is alarmed to see the chair’s abnormal degree of orientation, the acceleration, and the man’s rapid heartbeat. The health care provider jumps into action and rushes to the man’s aid.
Although the story above is fictitious, the technology is not. Anish Shah, a Boston University electrical and computer engineering graduate student, developed the novel technology with a team of Intel interns. For twelve weeks Shah was focused on creating a practical gateway device to improve the wheelchair experience and benefit health care monitoring.
The team linked the wheelchair to the “Internet of Things” by developing technology that attaches to the chair and to the user to collect and send information. The technology monitors fluctuating data and transmits it to a second party by route of an Internet application. The story above illustrates how the technology can be used to help caretakers respond in emergency situations.
Shah and his team started the design thinking process with a 3-4 week research period. The team discovered a huge variation in the needs of wheelchair users due to varying mobility and health restraints of each individual. To answer the range in needs, the team created technology that measured and sent information to Internet applications. The applications were designed for different health and wellbeing needs.
The technology integrated a bio-harness able to track bio data of the wheelchair user. It was programmed to track a range of body measurements like heart rate, skin temperature, and the orientation of whoever sits in the wheelchair. The harness was a tool with a number of applications when it was connected to the Internet. The technology can connect to Internet applications specifically designed to allow health care providers to respond to emergency situations. The technology can also be connected to applications designed to improve how long-term internal vitals were monitored.
Another feature of the gateway device was mechanical data monitoring. Here, the orientation of the chair, rather than the orientation of the user was observed. This capability can be applied to identify mechanical usage patterns and anomalies.
The wheelchair’s battery was also connected to the internet-of-things to answer questions like, “Will the chair battery die tomorrow?” and “is the chair consuming an irregular amount of energy?”
Lastly, a geo-location monitor was enabled to benefit user navigation of urban areas. With this technology, wheelchair users could find wheelchair accessible venues and thus improve their future transportation preparations.
Shah and his team tested the technology during a two-week trial period. They collected data and feedback and found highly positive results.
Stephen Hawking, world-renowned theoretical physicist and user of wheelchairs, publicly lauded the technological advancement. In a video response, Hawking applauded the design for it’s potential to change lives. “Medicine can’t cure me so I rely on technology,” noted Hawking. “It lets me interface with the world. It propels me. It is how I’m speaking to you now. It is necessary for me to live.”
Shah started the Intel internship one year into the Master of Engineering program at Boston University. He arrived at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering with an interest in embedded systems in 2013, and successfully applied the knowledge to create a device that received press coverage around the world. Now, he is working under Professor Thomas Little in the NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at Boston University.