From Age Well:
A Toronto team has created a system that can transform a regular powered wheelchair into a “smart” wheelchair able to help prevent collisions. The novel system uses sensors to detect obstacles and provide feedback to the driver. Feedback can be visual, audio or tactile (vibration). The idea is to alert the driver to obstacles.
It’s a much-needed product. Statistics show that 20 per cent of powered mobility device users report at least one major collision within a year, and 11 per cent of them are hospitalized due to injuries. These safety issues mean that people with visual-perceptual difficulties, including older adults with dementia, are often excluded from using powered wheelchairs. Loss of mobility can in turn lead to depression and an increased reliance on caregivers.
“Our collision avoidance and feedback system can help increase safety and independence for users of mobility devices, and improve quality of life for people currently excluded from using these devices,” says Pooja Viswanathan, CEO of Braze Mobility Inc., an AGE-WELL startup that is commercializing the system. Dr. Viswanathan, a postdoctoral fellow in computer science at theUniversity of Toronto and an AGE-WELL HQP, has worked for over a decade on collision-avoidance systems for wheelchairs. She says an advantage of the new system is that it’s an add-on product that can be installed on any commercial powered wheelchair.
It’s a perfect innovation for a startup because we have the ability to be nimble, to work closely with our consumers, and to come out with a product that perhaps the bigger companies are not as focused on.”
AGE-WELL support through a Strategic Investment Program grant has been crucial in getting a prototype ready to launch, says Dr. Viswanathan. Incubated at the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre, the project also receives funding from the Ontario Brain Institute. Several working prototypes have been tested at Toronto Rehab – UHN, with wheelchair users involved from the beginning. “We have consumers on our team, and we are innovating along with end users.”
A market-ready prototype is now being tested by early adopters in the community, and the company is looking for others to test the system. A crowdfunding campaign will be launched in coming months. The product is expected to be available by early 2017. “It’s a perfect innovation for a startup because we have the ability to be nimble, to work closely with our consumers, and to come out with a product that perhaps the bigger companies are not as focused on.”
Braze recently hired its first employee and a total of nine people are involved with the company as contractors, interns or in other roles. Although the technology is designed for powered wheelchairs, there are plans to adapt it for scooters and manual wheelchairs. “In general, rear visibility and manoeuvering in tight spaces is a real issue with mobility devices.”
For Dr. Viswanathan, the new system is a game changer. It will widen access to mobility devices, giving opportunities for independent mobility to all. “Mobility is a fundamental human right.”