The Evolution of Power Chair Electronics

Power wheelchair electronics have been influenced not just by seating & mobility clients and clinicians, but by the consumer electronics industry as a whole. As consumers became able to accomplish more, and more conveniently, via their personal computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets, expectations evolved for the electronics that drive power chairs.

Of course, power chair electronics are also tasked with supporting clinical initiatives, such as tilting and reclining to relieve pressure or facilitate catheter use. Positioning and mobility functions are often operated by consumers with strength, stamina or tone issues — or cognitive involvement. Today’s electronics are therefore expected to bridge two worlds: They’re expected to be as easy to use and as intuitive as popular consumer electronics systems, but operate as complex medical equipment.

“Completely Different” Electronics Systems

Mike Rozaieski, ATP, is product manager of medical mobility for Curtis Instruments, manufacturer of power chair electronics systems.

“Today’s electronics and when I started, which was 20 years ago, — they’re completely different,” he says. ”It used to be that there were very, very few specialty input devices available at all for alternative drive controls. And the ones that were were very cumbersome to connect to the system, very difficult to program. With some of them, you had to open up the cases to adjust switches to make minor changes to allow the system to work slightly better with your client.”

In comparison, Rozaieski points out that today’s power chair electronics are microprocessor based. Curtis Instruments’ high-end electronics, he adds, are designed specifically for users with neuromuscular involvement.

“From the beginning, we know that there’s the potential that they’re not going to be able to operate a standard joystick,” Rozaieski says. “So when we’re putting together our product development plan, we develop a system where the modules can individually communicate between each other. Like for instance, if you’ve got a client who’s progressive, let’s say a [multiple sclerosis] client, in the very beginning, a standard joystick may be fine. But a couple of years down the road, they may develop some pressure issues, and then you have to add some power positioning to it. The [electronics] system is designed so you can add a module that would control the seating functions, basically plug it into the system, then program it with a hand-held programmer or PC programming station to allow whatever functionality that client requires to manage their pressure appropriately.”

Living Up to Consumers’ Expectations

Rozaieski says Curtis takes its next-generation design cues from a number of sources, including clinicians, power chair manufacturers, assistive technology providers and the consumers who ultimately use the power chairs.

Those consumers based their expectations in part on what they see available in the general electronics market.

“Some of them feature color graphical displays, a GUI [graphical user interface] so you really get the same kind of function and feel that you would when navigating the screens on your phone,” Rozaieski says.

At the same time, it’s important to be able to dial down distractions for some consumers. “Those screens can be customized for the individual,” he notes. “When we deal with clients with cognitive disabilities, you have the ability to limit the number of drive profiles. If you just want to have one drive, then use the speed knob to adjust how fast you’re going. You can do that so they don’t have those other four profiles for outdoor, indoor, school, all of the other types of terrains. You can also turn off a lot of the different items that are displayed on the screen.”

When creating new electronics systems, Rozaieski says he likes to start with what the consumer truly wants and work from there.

“We know there’s funding issues,” he says. “We know there’s got to be mechanisms for therapists and providers to be able to easily program and adjust the system to accommodate the individual clients. But at the end of the day, the client is the one who’s going to be spending eight, 10, 12 hours a day in the chair, so we really try to add in as much functionality as we possibly can to allow them more independence. And then we try to fit that into everything else.

“Obviously, we have to be cognizant of funding issues because the chairs can become quite expensive, especially when you get into something that’s utilizing specialty controls. But we start with the pie-in-the-sky dream, that this is what we want it to do, and then we know next we need to make sure the therapists and the providers who are setting up the chairs can do this very, very easily and that the programming can be easily navigated.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Mobility Management.

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