May 27, 2010
"Seeking greater independence, patients help MIT researchers design a voice-driven device."
David Hatch uses a joystick to direct his wheelchair, but he dreads the day — coming soon — when he won’t have enough control over his hands to steer it around corners or avoid bumping into things.
That’s why Hatch is so interested in a robotic wheelchair operated by voice commands that is being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It could restore some of the independence his multiple sclerosis is stealing away.
“I like the idea of telling my chair where to go,’’ said Hatch, 69, a retired GTE Corp. engineer who has been coping with a slowly degenerative form of MS for 44 years. “I see people wandering around the neighborhood in [their] chairs. That’s the kind of thing I’d love to be able to do.’’
Hatch is also excited about the wheelchair because he’s helping to design it, along with fellow residents of the Boston Home in Dorchester, a residential and outpatient facility for people with neurological disorders such as MS and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Too often in the history of wheelchairs and other assistive technologies, the equipment is designed by engineers or scientists, not by people dependent on it, said MIT associate professor Nicholas Roy, who is leading the project along with professor Seth Teller. The industry is littered with ideas that did not work, Roy said.
“Assistive technology tends to have a relatively high rate of abandonment,’’ he said. “It’s either not nice to use, uncomfortable, or not obvious [how to use it]. It doesn’t fit the problem.’’
With the help of Boston Home residents like Hatch, Roy hopes his voice-activated wheelchair will avoid a similar fate. Already, Hatch and others have helped make it more user-friendly.
The wheelchair is designed to be tracked so the staff will know the location of each of the home’s 96 residents. But the residents also want to use the tracking ability to help them find their friends, which can be difficult when everyone’s in a wheelchair.
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