Everyone (that we know, at least) loves to talk on their phone while driving. Many disabled wheelchair drivers would like to skirt the law as well, but it can be hard to use a phone while driving when your hands aren’t quite in optimal condition. The folks at Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation have partnered with Otto Bock to create a new device that bridges wheelchair controllers with smartphones, gaming consoles, TVs, and other devices equipped with Bluetooth technology.
The new interface allows people to manipulate these devices via the same controllers used to drive their wheelchairs. The various joysticks, buttons, and other control devices on electric wheelchairs are already designed to be ergonomic for their users, so it was only natural to use them for interacting with computers and smartphones. Additionally, the system can stream information about the wheelchair to its user, including how much battery life is left and what the expected range is. Users can also use the interface to map wheelchair-friendly routes and find suitable bathrooms in their vicinity. If connected to other devices around the house, the same system should allow for controlling thermometers, electric window blinds, and anything else that can respond to a wireless interface.
The module is compatible with many electric powered wheelchairs from the Otto Bock range. Box-shaped and compact, its dimensions of 85 x 65 x 32 millimeters mean that it can be discreetly attached to the wheelchair. The box comprises both the hardware in the form of a printed circuit board and the software, and it has two Bluetooth interfaces. Wenzel describes the advantage of the second Bluetooth interface as follows: “The system not only enables interaction with electronic devices, it can also be used to transfer wheelchair data – such as battery capacity, motor currents, and errors in the drive system, for example – to a smartphone.” A specially developed smartphone app reads and processes the data.
“When users of electric powered wheelchairs are considering going on an excursion, they are often uncertain about how long the battery will last, because the energy consumed by the wheelchair depends on the temperatures outside and the hilliness of the terrain. A wheelchair uses up more power on steep hills than on flat roads. This uncertainty often means wheelchair users choose to stay in rather than venture out,” explains Wenzel. The Android app carries out a precise range projection. The app determines the current location , compares it against the battery capacity, and calculates if there is enough energy left to bring the wheelchair back to the home point. It obtains the requisite data from the Internet. Wheelchair users are informed how much further they can safely travel via their cellphones. When the capacity begins to run low, a warning appears on the smartphone display telling them that there is only enough power left for another ten kilometers.