By John M. Williams
The good news is you're invited to a swank party at an old country club. The bad news? You're in a power wheelchair, and the party is upstairs. There is no elevator at this 19th century establishment. You can hear the music coming from the floor above. The noise and the facial expressions of the people walking up and down the steps tell you everyone's enjoying themselves -- except you. Your power wheelchair weighs a ton, and you don't want to ask people to carry you up the stairs.
In short, you're bummed -- unless you have an iBOT. That's short for Individual Balancing Optimized Transporter. This space-age device looks like a cross between a Mars rover and a wheelchair but acts more like the former. Unlike traditional wheelchairs or even newer power models, the iBOT can roll up or down long flights of stairs, navigate uneven surfaces, and even hop steep curbs without any difficulty. Users sit in a padded seat atop four large rear wheels, two small front castor wheels, and a box full of high-tech gyroscopes and balancing equipment.
The iBOT is the brainchild of Dean Kamen, 49. Yep, that's the same Dean Kamen who became a media darling earlier this year when newshounds caught wind of his top-secret "Ginger" invention (it turned out to be nothing more than a nifty scooter). Kamen is president and founder of DEKA Research & Development in Manchester, N.H. And he could go down in history as the man who finally gave wheelchair users the capability to go wherever they want. I have seen the iBOT operate. While other wheelchairs will raise a user to another person's eye level and higher, there's no other mobility device like this one.
ON THE LEVEL.
Here's how the iBOT works. In standard mode, it functions like a regular power wheelchair. But the wheels can swivel into several other configurations to enable different activities. To climb stairs, the two large wheels actually rotate around each other in a circular motion that slowly moves the chair upwards while keeping the seat virtually level and stable. The chair also has an upright "balance" mode, where the two sets of big wheels are stacked vertically and the seat is elevated several feet.
Although the iBOT looks unstable in this mode, it isn't -- internal motors synchronized with gyroscopes make it hard to tip the chair over, even when someone tries to push it. The user can drive it normally and do things such as reach shelves or address other people at eye level.
The inspiration for the iBOT came a decade ago, when Kamen watched a man in a wheelchair get out of a van in a parking lot and guide his wheelchair to a curb several inches high. "There, the gentleman met an immovable object. After more than 200 years of manufacturing wheelchairs, they still could not go up a curb," says Kamen. "It seemed such a waste that something so small could deny an individual in a wheelchair maximum mobility autonomy."
That posed an intriguing challenge for the physicist and inventor, who built the first insulin pump for diabetics and a portable kidney-dialysis machine, among other nifty gadgets. After witnessing the parking-lot scene, Kamen decided to build a super-wheelchair. Initially, he believed he could use the best existing technology and develop a solution to surmount curbs and stairs. However, the solution was not that easy. The difficulty was to build a wheelchair that could easily stay balanced in unstable situations but still keep moving. "I don't care if you imagine it as having antigravity modules on it, tank treads, hydraulics, spokes that collapsed on the wheels -- nothing would solve the problem," says Kamen.
Several years after his parking-lot experience, Kamen had an unexpected epiphany. "I stepped out of the shower and into a water puddle on the polished granite floor. I hit it with one of my heels. I went flying out without any traction, and my feet were sliding out in front of me. I was about to fall back on my head when I start swinging my arms -- like you learn to do when you are four years old -- which gives you angular momentum while keeping you upright. And I slid into the wall. Suddenly, the answer was there," he recalls.
That near-fall gave Kamen a clear picture of how humans maintain their balance and how he could apply that mechanism to wheelchairs. "When standing on something slippery, we do not go down because we are always diametrically balanced," he says. That can mean waving your arms or bending over or lifting a leg to maintain balance. But wheelchairs can't do that. So Kamen built the iBOT with gyroscopes that are programmed to create balancing capabilities based on an individual's center of gravity. The gyroscopes, in effect, emulate the principle by which humans are able to stand, balance themselves, and navigate around and through various environments and terrain by always offering a counterbalance.
Six years ago, after the initial design was ready, Kamen took his concept to health-care heavyweight Johnson & Johnson (JNJ ). He asked CEO Ralph Larsen for money to develop the iBOT. Larsen immediately said yes, according to Kamen. Since then, J&J has invested more than $100 million into research and development for the machine. How does J&J feel about its investment? Last month, during a speech at the Council of Institutional Investors in Washington, D.C., Larsen said, "The [iBOT] is not a wheelchair. It's an exciting technological development that has the potential to help hundreds of thousands of people in the years ahead."
That sounds pretty grand. And thus far, the iBOT has gotten rave reviews. Numerous testimonials praising it have been posted on the Internet by test drivers. John Lancaster, former executive director of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and a wheelchair user, says: "The iBOT is really cool and performs feats of mobility movement that no other wheelchair I have seen does." The iBOT should be commercially available in Europe later this year and in the U.S. sometime next year, pending U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval.
The two strikes against the iBOT are cost and weight. It currently weighs around 250 pounds with batteries. For that reason, it is very difficult to lift, even though this is rarely required (it does have a function that allows users to pilot it up ramps into the back of vehicles with a wireless remote control). And, like many other assistive-technology devices, the cost is steep -- at $25,000, the iBOT is out of the price range of the vast majority of wheelchair users in the U.S., let alone those in poorer countries.
But the ultimate value of the iBOT to an economy is hard to track. If widely deployed, these devices could save businesses and governments billions in avoided retrofitting costs to accommodate wheelchairs in buildings and offices. And that doesn't count saved expenditures on social services, such as personal-mobility aides for wheelchair users.
Kamen knows that a less expensive, lighter iBOT would have a much bigger impact, and he thinks future models will reflect those needs. At current prices, J&J will break even if it sells 4,000 iBOTs. Given the number of wheelchair users worldwide with the means to buy an iBOT, that goal is possible in three years, experts tell me. But the ultimate goal would be an iBOT for everyone that needs one.
Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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Edited by Alex Salkever