Technologies in the Works That Will Improve Quality of Life

By Guest Blogger Kathy Pretz, editor in chief of The Institute, IEEE’s member newspaper

Engineers around the world are hard at work developing technologies that will make life easier for those with disabilities. Members of IEEE – the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity – are among them. The ones featured here are working on projects to help people with ALS, those who are wheelchair-bound and others who need a helping hand with household chores.

A Communication Device for ALS

Lama Nachman, director of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab in Santa Clara, Calif., is leading the team that is upgrading Stephen Hawking’s communication system and making it open source. This will eventually help others living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – better known as ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle twitching, weakness and speech impairment – to better communicate. Hawking, the famous British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, relies on an Intel computer system to type and voice his thoughts as well as navigate computer applications and Internet browsing. His upgraded system reduced the number of words he needed to spell out completely by adding word-prediction technology that is used in smartphones. It also sped up common tasks such as opening a document or browsing the Web.

While the current platform is tailored to Hawking, Nachman says it should be easy to adapt for others by making the word-prediction software more conversational and expanding the motion-sensing capabilities to detect movements beyond a twitch of the cheek, which is how Hawking controls the system. Her team is now working on a facial-gesture recognition tool so that users can, for example, choose an application or open a new document using various facial expressions.

A Wheelchair That Adjusts to its Environment

Mahesh Krishnamurthy, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, created a low-cost, power-assisted wheelchair that could sense its surroundings and would be simple to operate. Krishnamurthy began with a widely used conventional manual chair and added an electric power boost. He then combined a classic motor control method with a novel approach that lets the wheelchair adapt to the driving conditions.

One challenge for a wheelchair user is caused by the moderate changes in a sidewalk’s center-to-street grade. In conventional power-assist chairs, such banking can cause the chair to veer toward the street unless additional force is applied to the street-side wheel. Another problem occurs when a wheelchair going uphill needs to turn left or right. More force must be applied to just one wheel. Such variations require extra muscle effort and could cause the chair to tip over.

Krishnamurth’s chair will be able to sense moderate changes in a sidewalk’s center-to-street grade, making adjustments accordingly. The torque automatically increases as the chair goes uphill. On a banked sidewalk, the system automatically distributes torque between the wheels. “No matter what the driving circumstances – uphill, downhill or banking – from the user’s perspective, ideally we want nothing to change,” Krishnamurthy says. “They should be able to push equally on both sides so that one arm does not feel any more tired than the other. We are trying to reduce stress on patients’ muscles while at the same time avoiding muscle atrophy,” Krishnamurthy says. “We hope that people who use this chair find it to be a simple yet effective addition to their daily lives, whether it is for a short or long period of time, without having to learn to use it.”

A Robot Helper for the Home

Takeo Kanade, a professor at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, is the founder of the university’s National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, which develops quality-of-life technologies such as robots that perform household chores. Clinicians and caregivers are involved, describing patient needs and giving feedback on prototypes. “Instead of starting out with engineers saying, ‘Let’s build this cool robot and see if people like it,’ you need to start with what people want and how they’ll accept working with a robot,” Kanade says.

The Home Exploring Robot Butler, affectionately known as HERB, is a two-armed silver robot on wheels that stands 54 inches tall and weighs 400 lbs. It assists with household tasks such as picking up objects, opening and closings refrigerator doors, and microwaving meals. The Personal Mobility and Manipulations Appliance is a wheelchair with arms that can be controlled by the rider or remotely by a caregiver. It is the first fully robotic mobility and manipulation device for people with disabilities.

An impetus for Kanade’s focus on quality-of-life technologies was his aging mother’s rapid decline after an accident that significantly decreased her mobility. Kanade was visiting her frequently in Japan and he wanted to monitor her between visits. He wondered whether robotics could help. “My mother died before I got the grant,” he says, adding that her spirit propels his work. “As a young engineer, I think I was romantic about the future of robotics,” he says. “I believed that robots and computers would be smarter than humans. Now, I believe that robots and humans enhance each other’s performance. I see them as having a beautiful friendship.”

About the Guest Blogger

Kathy Pretz is the editor in chief of The Institute, IEEE’s member newspaper. IEEE has more than 426,000 members in over 160 countries.


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