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The disabled are back in control

A Norwegian-led project team from the Esprit programme has succeeded in improving the quality of life for the disabled. A new control system fitted to electric wheelchairs will enable the severely handicapped to manoeuvre more effectively and to operate external electrical app...
A Norwegian-led project team from the Esprit programme has succeeded in improving the quality of life for the disabled. A new control system fitted to electric wheelchairs will enable the severely handicapped to manoeuvre more effectively and to operate external electrical appliances, and will improve their ability to communicate.

Background

The Rolltalk project team has taken a different approach to new technology, placing innovative developments in the hands of the patient - literally, in some cases. Their work has led to a new system which could greatly improve the quality of life for the severely handicapped. Equipment developed under the project will allow the disabled to control their environment (switching lights on and off, changing TV channels, opening electric doors, etc.), manoeuvre and adjust an electric wheelchair, and communicate via voice synthesis or on-screen messages.

The Rolltalk system allows users to operate a computer mounted on an electric wheelchair, controlling various tailor-made functions affecting their daily lives. If a disabled person has the use of his or her hands, a joystick will allow them to move a cursor around the screen to control the desired function. In more severe cases, there may only be control over the movement of an eye, for example, but if users have even one controllable muscle, a sensor system can be employed to allow them to benefit from Rolltalk.

Description, impact and results

Equipping electric wheelchairs with these control capabilities is not, in itself, a new idea - the key innovation element comes in the special adaptations. One of the Rolltalk team's objectives was to promote an element of standardisation permitting the user to specify the required functions of his or her wheelchair and to buy the individual components - such as an adjustable seat or the steering system - from different manufacturers, as appropriate. The problem in the past has been integrating the control of these various components. Such tailor-made solutions have required complicated cabling systems, making wheelchairs very expensive - often beyond the budget of the health authorities which are commonly called upon to pay for them.

The team wanted to promote the concept of a `plug and play' system, in which components from different manufacturers could be used seamlessly. As one of the team members points out, your PC may be made by Compaq, whereas your printer is from Hewlett Packard. You expect - rightly - that the two should operate together without problems. Why should this not be the case for motorised wheelchair systems?

One of the main elements in furthering this goal is the use of a computer bus assembly, a compact interconnection system that allows simultaneous high-speed passage of signals from several components of the computer. Here, the team had a head start. An earlier EU project had led to the development of the `M3S' (Multiple Master Multiple Slave) bus system, but its use was not widespread. By adapting the software and interfaces of the Rolltalk computer control unit to M3S standards, the team has produced an integrated control system which could gain acceptance throughout Europe and beyond.

Throughout the project, the team was conscious that previous Rolltalk computerised control systems had been somewhat cumbersome, as well as being difficult to interface with components from different wheelchair manufacturers. By adapting standard - but state-of-the-art - electronic components, and adopting the M3S bus standards, these problems have been overcome.

Working partnerships

Prototype wheelchairs have been successfully tested to accepted standards, and the project leader, Norwegian SME, IGEL Kompaniet, is at an advanced stage of negotiations with venture capitalists to secure the funding for a sales drive across Europe, and consequent job creation. Any attempt to develop a standard solution to a technical problem must, by definition, involve major players in the field concerned. Accordingly, IGEL has initiated, fostered and maintained strong relationships with wheelchair manufacturers, mechatronics designers, and hardware and software producers. In addition, the company has cooperated closely with producers of shielding cases and speciality coatings, to ensure that the equipment is protected from interference from other electrical appliances.


Source: European Commission, DG XIII/D.4 - Information and dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge

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