By the time LUCI, a smart technology hardware-software system for power wheelchairs, was introduced in June, a number of clinicians who’d seen early demonstrations were already impressed. LUCI, they said, could put safe, independent mobility within reach of more consumers who may not have previously been candidates for power wheelchairs.
LUCI’s team describes a patented system that “combines stereo vision, infrared, ultrasonic and radar data into a single view of the world, enabling never-before-seen possibilities for power wheelchair riders.” In everyday terms, LUCI sees and evaluates the power chair user’s environment, and works with the consumer’s own input and reaction times to create a safer user experience. Core abilities include collision avoidance, drop-off protection, an anti-tipping alert system, and Cloud-based communications and alerts that can connect LUCI’s user with family, caregivers and others at the user’s discretion.
But despite possibly revolutionary functions, LUCI began humbly, as a family project for Katherine Dean, a teen with cerebral palsy who’s used a power chair for much of her life. Katherine’s dad, award-winning songwriter Barry Dean, was looking for a system that could help Katherine drive more safely; he assumed such a system was already on the market.
When he could find no such system, he turned to his brother Jered, a former product design engineer and director of the Colorado School of Mines’s Capstone Design@Mines. Fast forward three years, and LUCI is ready for prime time.
Mobility Management connected with Barry Dean, LUCI’s CEO, and Jered Dean, CTO, via phone to get to know LUCI.
Q1: Where did LUCI get its name?
LUCI isn’t an acronym, but the name is closely tied to its first user, Katherine.
“LUCI was the code name when we were developing the Cloud part of this,” Barry said. “It’s based on my daughter’s favorite song, ‘Lucy in the Sky [with Diamonds].’ Originally, we were using technical names, and this name came from Jered’s wife: ‘We could call the code name of the Cloud [part of the system] ‘Luci,’ because ‘Luci’ is in the sky.’
“We thought that was funny, but later on, we thought, ‘That’s the name of the whole thing.’ Katherine’s favorite song is ‘Lucy in the Sky.’ She’s a huge Beatles fan.”
Q2: LUCI currently is compatible with Permobil chairs. Is compatibility with more chairs in the works?
At press time, LUCI was compatible with Permobil’s F3, M3 and M5 power chairs, but Barry said compatibility with Quantum Rehab’s Edge series power chairs is coming soon.
While LUCI was announced in June, compatibility with additional power chair brands and models is a work in progress. To acquire power chairs to use in LUCI’s development, testing and fine-tuning, the team bought used power chairs from eBay and other sellers.
“We are a self-funded startup and we had to pick where we started,” Barry said in explaining LUCI’s initial compatibility with Permobil models. “Could we be compatible with other chairs? Yes. Do we want to be? Absolutely. I wish I had a timeline, but we’re just now having meetings with [additional manufacturers]. We have tried to create something that could help everyone instead of making it a brand-centric thing.”
Team LUCI is also in talks with Complex Rehab suppliers to set up a sales network. “We’ve just done a public release, and it’ll actually be available for sale in fall,” Barry said. “We’re currently having those meetings with suppliers. We’re excited to get that all set up.”
While the Deans would like to see LUCI offered as part of a new power chair, LUCI can be retrofitted onto chairs that are already in use. “A lot of times, there’s a focus on new chairs, and certainly, we fit on new chairs,” Barry said. “But we’ve tried to also make sure we have a way to [retrofit] if you have an existing chair.”
Q3: How does LUCI fit onto the power chair, and how much energy does it draw from the power chair’s battery?
One of the design goals for LUCI was to be as unobtrusive as possible. For example, LUCI does not affect the chair’s powered seating functions.
“We mount onto the base, primarily, so the seating functions are still free to do as they will,” Jered said.
LUCI draws power from the power chair’s battery, but Barry said the amount of energy needed is small: “It uses less than five percent of the battery, so it’s a very tiny draw,” he said. “But it’s also monitoring the battery in a better way” than power chairs currently offer, he added.
“We do monitor the battery, and we don’t just listen to what the wheelchair thinks,” Jered said. “We monitor the voltage on the battery as well. So we can let people know and can even send alerts when the battery gets too low to remind them to charge the battery. Users are always in control of who can see their data, but they can choose to share their battery data with someone else, such as if they had somebody to help them remember to plug in their chair.”
Enhanced battery monitoring is one example of how LUCI is engineered for the real world, Barry added. “If they’re a road warrior and they’re out driving, maybe they set it up to say, ‘If my battery goes below 20 percent, I’d like it to alert me, but I’d also like it to alert [another] person with my GPS location.’
“We live in Nashville, but Katherine had surgery in St. Louis, and her chair was parked for several days. The battery had died, but we didn’t know it. So she went to get in the chair to leave, and she got a dead battery. LUCI would’ve prevented that: We would’ve gotten a text that said, ‘Even though the chair is turned off, I know that the battery is below 10 percent, so you might want to check that.’ If it’s set up and that’s how the rider wants it, then it can be a great feature. We hope this will help you protect your battery.”
Jered said LUCI tracks battery usage over time: “On the MyLuci portal for a user, you can see by hour, day, week, month — what does my battery utilization look like and the percentage of the battery that I use each day? So you may be able to see patterns, and you may be able to plan charging times from all that data. That is the hope of providing this information through the app, to let people have the data to make smart decisions. Without the data, it’s hard to know.”
Q4: What kind of infrastructure is required for LUCI to operate? Can LUCI still operate without WiFi being available, for example?
While LUCI can do more in a WiFi environment, the system doesn’t rely on an Internet connection for its primary capabilities.
“The core functions of LUCI have no dependence on the Cloud,” Jered said. “So collision avoidance, tip and drop-off protections are not affected by lack of Internet.”
“The WiFi is really just used for over-the-air upgrading of software, or to securely connect you to the Cloud,” Barry said. “But as far as the actual functionality, it’s going to operate in any environment the way it would if it had WiFi and cell.”
“For sharing data with the Cloud and the team, obviously WiFi is preferred,” Jered added. “But we do have a cellular connection, so when you don’t have WiFi, you have cellular. LUCI uses that for alerts that are more pressing: The user could set up tip alerts so if the chair were to tip over — obviously, LUCI is trying to prevent that from ever happening, but if that happens, LUCI can send an alert to people you have chosen. The user is always in control of that. But we have cellular so those sorts of critical alerts can be sent whether WiFi is available or not. And then WiFi is used for the rest of the functions.”
Q5: Can the person using the power chair override LUCI’s functions?
Barry and Jered emphasized that the power chair user retains ultimate authority over LUCI’s functions, from sharing wheelchair data to making contact with obstacles.
“The truth is life is complicated,” Jered said. “There are things that may happen, like opening your door with a footplate. LUCI’s going to stop you a couple of centimeters from the door, and you’ll have to use override to do those sorts of things. So there are situations I think where people will use override; that’s why it’s there. It’s not about [LUCI’s] autonomy; it’s about independence for the user. The user always has that ability, and hopefully LUCI is allowing them to drive and do their thing every day with less of a level of concern and less thought about navigating tight spaces, etc.”
Q6: Can LUCI be configured for each user? Can it be reconfigured if a progressive condition slows down reaction time?
Yes and yes. After initial setup, LUCI can be adjusted if ALS or multiple sclerosis slows the user’s ability to move a joystick or interact with an alternative driving control. (And yes, LUCI works with alternative driving controls; it’s the user’s input, rather than the type of input device, that’s important.)
“There’s a setup tool that is used to configure LUCI, and it has a reaction time test,” Jered said. “Some people might start with an alternative drive and then move to a joystick or vice versa. As you make that transition, you can go back into that setup tool and reconfigure LUCI for that.”
Jered added that adjustments can be made quickly — in 10 to 15 minutes, on average.
“[LUCI] just needs to know how you’re inputting your control and your reaction time,” Barry said. “Now [it is] going to set the performance of this mobility to your individual reaction time. This is really a new way of thinking about it. I think anyone who is considering pediatric power will be interested in it. I think anyone who’s dealing with an alternative drive might find this is much more efficient and less fatiguing; you have to do fewer switches. And for anybody who is dealing with a progressive disability, imagine being able to have the chair as an ally as your reaction time gets slower. So it’s keeping the world within a certain formula and reaction times that you’re comfortable with, and it helps you manage that and drive optimally.”
LUCI can also be adjusted for users who live at their chairs’ top speeds. Barry laughed: “There are race car drivers who are riders.” While parents might ask their wheelchair providers to dial down the speed so their kids can maintain control of their power chairs, Jered said, “The need for that is a failure of the current equipment, I would argue. Because that’s exactly what we see and why LUCI exists. As you change environments, LUCI is keeping track of the environment and dynamically changing the drive of the power wheelchair in each direction based on the real situation in the world around you.
“With LUCI working with the rider input, again, it’s not autonomous; there is a human in the loop. That’s something I feel very passionate about. It’s not autonomy, and so as LUCI measures the world around you and listens to you as the driver or rider, and your inputs, you don’t have to start playing with the speed settings constantly and having to guess what the right speed for a situation is. LUCI is helping to keep the world within your reaction time and keeping you from running into things and driving off of steps. You don’t need a line of technicians to be adjusting chairs as you change environments. That’s LUCI’s job.”
Barry said LUCI was designed for the crowd scenarios he’s experienced with his daughter Katherine: like leaving Disney World after nighttime fireworks, when a sea of humanity is exiting.
“We know each driver is an individual with a unique driving style,” Barry said. “Some aggressive racecar drivers don’t mind bumping, because rubbing’s racing. Some drivers aren’t as confident in unfamiliar surroundings. Some have cautious parents who stay terrified. LUCI is actually aware of the surroundings, so it’s creating a buffer based on reaction time. We show a video where one of the clinicians is literally pushing the joystick totally forward all the way, set on the highest speed, and there’s a group of us walking around her. When we walk slow, the chair moves along with the slow crowd. If the crowd starts jogging, it goes faster. Because it’s keeping that buffer so you’re not driving up on somebody’s heel.”
Q7: How much seat-to-floor height does LUCI add to a power chair?
“There’s a very little ribbon of space between the base and the seat when the seating assembly is all the way down, and we fit in that space,” Jered said. “We don’t add any height to the chair. One of our goals was to really integrate with the existing chair without eliminating functionality. That’s one of the things we were trying really hard to do. We mount to existing bolts on the chair; we mount in what is effectively the dead space between the seating assembly and the power base.”
LUCI adds about 15 lbs. to the power chair.
Q8: Who’s the target demographic for LUCI?
Here’s where LUCI gets personal, because Barry was once that parent watching as his small daughter sat in an enormous power chair.
“Some are more cautious and some are less cautious,” Barry said of clinicians considering power mobility for pediatric clients. “I can just speak to my daughter’s situation. When she first got her chair, she was a little girl, and the first thing that happened was it drove down the hallway in the clinic because they hadn’t set the speed slow enough. It took off and drove straight into a wall. First thing that happened.
“I took that power chair home and parked it in the garage for two years. I’m not happy or proud that I did that, but I was already nervous about this big, heavy chair and my little daughter. Katherine has cognitive development issues, she has issues with motor function, she has issues with vision now — and because of those issues, I was really nervous. So I empathize with the parent that is struggling with the big chair. But I also know clinicians are saying we need kids in power and we need kids to be mobile earlier for their development, and I agree with that. Looking back, I wish I’d done it sooner.”
LUCI, the Deans believe, can help parents who want the benefits of independent mobility for their children, but are worried about safety. “I hope that it’s going to help people feel a lot more comfortable,” Barry said. “I hope there’s a chance to do something that allows more people to have the opportunity to have mobility. That’s really what we’re trying to do, especially with kids.”
Barry said it’s “a little early” to talk about possible contraindications; the team, after all, is still actively collecting feedback from industry stakeholders. He did liken LUCI to equipment such as wheelchair securement systems “that came to the industry because we needed them and we needed some innovation in that area. I don’t know if there’s an indication and a contraindication as much as it is ‘We really need this.’”
And Barry sees LUCI as potentially beneficial for every power chair user, not just new wheelchair users or those with progressive conditions. “I don’t know of another technology out there that can offer these things,” he said. “There have been attempts to take a room and kind of map it, like a Roomba [robot vacuum cleaner]. But in the real world, where riders want to go or at least where my daughter wants to go, is anywhere she wants. So we’ve tried to build something for that rider. With the stats we’re seeing and the lawsuits we did research on, tips and falls are a real issue. I think most riders and their families think it’s just them. But if you start researching it, you say, ‘Wow, this is a real problem that doesn’t seem to be addressed.’”
Jered added, “I can’t go buy a car right now, I don’t think, that doesn’t have some form of collision avoidance and connectivity built into it. And those cars with those features oftentimes cost less than a power wheelchair costs. The future of the power wheelchair is to have smart power wheelchairs. I don’t see a future where this is not where the industry needs to go. I think there are a lot of barriers that we’re trying to knock down. I truly believe that the idea that you would have access to modern connectivity, that you would have driver assistance features like any modern car on a power wheelchair is inevitable, and I hope that we get to that point.”
Q9: LUCI collects and shares data on wheelchair usage. Have you built in precautions?
“Security and control are critical, obviously, so there’s no personally identifiable information stored on a LUCI unit,” Barry said. “Even though it’s keeping certain pieces for WiFi later, what it’s keeping is not personally identifiable at all.”
He explained that LUCI’s de-identified data is sent through an encrypted channel to the LUCI Cloud, which is secure. Once it’s behind the secure wall, “That’s where it is attached to the ID. If you saw the little [LuciLink] key we have on the back, that key is saying, ‘I’m only going to send this data to the Cloud if this is here.’ The chair will still operate the way it’s supposed to without the key, but the key has to do with the data, so once it’s behind that HIPAA-secure [MyLuci] server, that’s where we attach identification to this data that was shared. And then the rider gets to choose who to share what data with from there.”
LUCI could eventually help researchers by sharing collected data that’s pertinent, but not linked to any specific LUCI user. “Because of the way this data goes in and is stored, we can have a large, anonymized aggregate of information so in the future, you could use that anonymized aggregation of information to begin to have research that isn’t based on conjecture or how I remember what I did last week,” Barry said. “But the identity is still secure.
“When you’re connecting your chair to an app or you’re connecting your chair to a WiFi signal, one of the questions always to ask is ‘For who? Why am I doing this? Does it help the riders and the caregivers? What do I gain from that?’ There’s nothing wrong with machines tracking themselves to know how maintenance is going. We’re for all of that. But we felt that if it was going to be down-the-road information that could really be helpful, we needed to build a system that was secure and allowed those things to happen from the ground up. So that’s what Jered and his team did.”
Barry recognizes Complex Rehab’s need for data, in part to prove that complex seating and wheelchairs drive positive clinical outcomes. But as a parent of a teen, he balanced that broader good with what’s personally good for him and his family. “With Katherine, I knew there was anonymized data that doesn’t say anything about her, but it does say something about time in seat or how many miles she drives,” he said. “If we’re ever going to go after the big data we need, for pressure injuries for instance, we’re going to need a large amount of anonymized, but aggregate data so we can start to say, ‘Actually, we’re finding this is more effective than that.’”
Q10: Is LUCI reimbursable?
The MSRP for LUCI is $8445, with financing currently available through Care Credit. LUCI can be billed as a K0108 (miscellaneous) HCPCS code. At press time, at least one Complex Rehab Technology coding and policy expert is exploring code verification through PDAC.
“When Jered came up with a first prototype that worked for Katherine so she’s not running into things or driving off things, very early on everyone said, ‘There’s not a reimbursement code for that, so no company’s going to work with you. It’s really hard to get a code,’” Barry said. “And that’s true. They’re not lying and they’re not wrong in saying that. We made a decision that we were going to build to the need, not just to the code. Because if I’m waiting for a code and allowables for permission to innovate, the person who gets burned is my daughter. That’s when we decided, we’re going to build to the need. And we did that.”
Q11: So ultimately, why LUCI?
For all of LUCI’s smart capabilities, the tip-overs and collisions potentially avoided, and the anonymized data collected that could help researchers, Barry said the reason for LUCI’s existence is simple.
“The frustration we have is that the person has more potential than the chair allows,” Barry said. “We’re trying to change that. It may be that early on, this particular diagnosis, this particular situation, is where we find our foothold and begin. But we’re just scratching the surface of what LUCI can do and where we can go.
“I’m just a songwriter. Jered is a brilliant engineer and writes patents, but the fact is we made a decision to do this not because we were looking for a company to start. This is a very difficult industry. When we look at the number of companies that have tried — major companies, really smart companies — and they didn’t approach it correctly or they couldn’t break through the code system, whatever the reason, it’s a daunting situation. So once we started working on this, we said we’re going to make the chair smarter to give the person in the chair expression of all their potential and not let technology impede them from being wonderful. We found clinicians opened their time, their hearts and their minds to us, and we’re still learning from them.”
For the Deans, the reason for LUCI goes back to the teen who loves The Beatles and was the inspiration for this new system’s name and purpose.
“My daughter has one life, and I’m not willing to sit on the sidelines about this,” Barry said. “I know some people bristle when they say the chair costs as much as a car — look, it’s more important than a car in my opinion, and so I’m glad to pay it. But I don’t think that gives manufacturers an excuse for not making it smart. We really love working with the clinicians. I have it on my white board here: The person has more potential than the chair allows; we have to fix that. And LUCI is trying to help.”