This post is a tribute to Dean Kamen and his wheelchair. Who is Dean Kamen, you ask? He is one of our great inventors. Though you may not recognize his name, you have surely heard of his most well known invention, the Segway.
That’s right. He’s the person who invented the human transporter that balances itself on two wheels, which is often associated with mall cops (Thanks for that Paul Blart). Although the Segway is his most recognised invention, his other inventions are far more important. These inventions range from the first in-home kidney dialysis machine to a fully articulated prosthetic arm for amputees. Of all his inventions so far, however, my personal favorite is the iBOT wheelchair.
This chair was a big step forward in wheelchair engineering. At first glance, it could almost be mistaken for any modern day powered wheelchair. It was a rear wheel drive with rear wheels that were about 14″ in diameter. Then there were the smaller caster wheels in the front. Like I said, it looked and functioned like a standard wheelchair, which was ideal for use indoors and on paved ground.
This chair also had some very unique abilities though. It had a second set of 14″ wheels behind the front casters. This second set of wheels could be lowered to the ground, which lifted the casters up and put the chair into four wheel drive. That made it possible to drive the chair over soft, uneven ground like rough grass and sand. However, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Using technology that functioned similarly to the Segway, the iBOT could ascend and descend stairs. It could also balance itself upon its rear wheels, lifting the passenger up to eye level with a standing person. The mechanics of how it all worked is hard to explain but this video from YouTube should help with that some.
Originally, the iBOT was built and sold through Johnson & Johnson. As you can imagine, the cost to manufacture this chair was higher than the standard powered wheelchair. As a result, the cost to buy the chair was a lot higher for the consumer. It was so expensive, in fact, that most insurances were not willing to pay for the chair, especially the government programs most disabled people use like Medicare and Medicaid. This led to poor sales of the chair, and when combined with the unique maintenance challenges of such a complex system, it prevented the iBOT from being profitable. The chair was eventually discontinued as a result.
Because the iBOT was such a versatile wheelchair and so many disabled people could benefit from this technology, I’ve had a dream to bring the chair back to the market somehow. I feel that people with disabilities deserve to have greater access to any technology that would help improve our standard of living and enable us to live more freely and productively. Even if Kat and I have to build the chair through a non profit company in order to keep the costs down, it would be far better than not having access to it at all. I know that when we have the right team of people working with us, we will be able to make this dream and many more come to fruition.
Update: Just a couple days after posting this, Google announced the Disabilities Impact Challenge. Perhaps Google would want to partner with me to help get this chair back into production? If you know somebody at Google, show them my blog. Maybe we could make this happen sooner than later!