Braze Mobility Inc. has launched an add-on system that can transform a regular wheelchair into a “smart” wheelchair able to help prevent collisions.
The novel system uses sensors to detect obstacles and provides visual, audio or vibration feedback to drivers. It can be added to any powered or manual wheelchair.
“Rear visibility and manoeuvering in tight spaces are real issues with mobility devices―and collisions can result,” said Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO of Braze Mobility. “Our obstacle-detection system is designed to increase safety, independence and quality of life for people living with mobility impairment.”
Two versions of the product―the Braze Hydra and Braze Sentina―debuted yesterday at the AGE-WELL Annual Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network, has supported Braze through its Strategic Investment Program.
Incorporated in 2016, Braze has also received support from the Ontario Brain Institute through their ONtrepreneurs program, the Ontario Centres of Excellence, the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto (U of T) and Semaphore Research Cluster at U of T.
Herman Witlox, a powered wheelchair user who helped to Beta test the obstacle-detection system, called it “a lifesaver” that helps him avoid collisions with people and property that can happen when changing directions or backing up, for example.
“It gives you an awareness and a sense of security,” said Witlox, who has continued to use the system and is involved with a company that will be one of its distributors.
The system can now be ordered at www.brazemobility.com by institutions such as hospitals, long-term care facilities and seating clinics across North America. Direct sales to individual consumers will follow.
For Dr. Viswanathan, a postdoctoral fellow in computer science at the University of Toronto and an AGE-WELL highly qualified personnel, the launch of the new system is a personal milestone. She has worked for over a decade on collision-avoidance systems for wheelchairs.
“Anyone who uses a wheelchair can benefit from this system, which will be particularly useful for people with low peripheral vision and limited neck and upper body flexibility” she said. “One of our testers says he feels like he has eyes on the back of his head with this technology. He says that it’s ‘got his back.’
“And for people who are excluded from using powered wheelchairs, including some older adults with dementia, the system will widen access to mobility devices, giving new opportunities for independent mobility,” says Dr. Viswanathan, who co-founded Braze Mobility with Dr. Alex Mihailidis, a Toronto Rehab/University of Toronto scientist and scientific director at AGE-WELL.
Braze is generating jobs as well as products. Nine people are involved with the company, including contractors and interns. Graham Browning, a recent engineering graduate from Ontario’s University of Waterloo, is now a product manager. He took the position at Braze over other offers.
“A big motivating factor was wanting to make a positive impact in people’s lives,” he said.
Braze has earned recognition at several recent pitch competitions. The company captured cash prizes after coming first in the POWER PLAY pitch competition (hosted by Toronto Rehab Foundation, in partnership with the iDAPT Centre for Rehabilitation Research and AGE-WELL), the CNE Innovation Garage, and a competition hosted by the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization (OBIO).Read More
The Braze team discovered a whole new meaning to the saying “Life is a journey, not a destination” on an outing to demo our anti-collision technology. For the trip back, decided to take the TTC to avoid the expense of taking a wheelchair cab (more on that later). What was supposed to take 36 minutes (according to Google maps) turned into a transit nightmare that dragged on for more than two hours!!
It started out as a fine day, but as rain started falling we quickly shed our coats to protect our chair’s exposed electronics. Things went downhill from there…
As the four of us got to the closest subway station, we looked around for a second entrance that did not involve going up a flight of stairs. We had some hope of finding one across the street, since an overhead tunnel seemed to lead to a parking structure with an elevator. False hope! As opposed to what we were told, this station wasn’t – and had never been – accessible.
We immediately turned to our phones to find alternative routes. This turned out to be tricky, since Google maps kept telling us to take the subway where we were, since it didn’t consider our accessibility predicament. Thankfully, a kind policeman realized we were struggling and told us which buses to take to reach an accessible TTC subway station.
When the first bus came, Pooja had the honour of driving the chair into the bus and parking into the spot reserved for wheelchairs, not without bumping into different parts of the bus. Unfamiliar as we were with the anchoring system, we didn’t figure out right away how to pull the retractable hooks out (especially since the first one we tried turned out to be broken). The sign with paragraph upon paragraph of instructions (see picture below) was of no help at all! The worst part was that the driver pulled away from the curb without even checking that the chair was anchored down – it wasn’t. Getting off the bus was just as eventful as getting on since the space immediately in front of the platform was blocked by a mailbox.
Two buses and a good 45 minutes later, we arrived at the subway station only to find out that the only elevator was broken down. This time, a genuinely apologetic TTC employee offered us an alternate route to another accessible station and even called ahead to check that those elevators were working.
We finally reached an accessible station after taking three different buses – Pooja’s skills at getting on/off the bus had already improved! At this station, we noticed a few more accessibility gaps, like the lack of signage near the elevator, which led us to the wrong side of the platform, as if we hadn’t wasted enough time already.
A full 2 hours and 15 minutes after our departure, four times Google’s estimated trip duration, we finally arrived back at the office with our patience tested and a banged up prototype. It became apparent, even before the end of the trip, that this experience was about much more than just making it back to the office. It became one small piece of my journey to be more aware of the accessibility challenges that powered wheelchair drivers and their caregivers can face every single day, even if I wasn’t the one sitting in the wheelchair.Read More
The morning of the Accessibility Innovation Showcase, I was tasked with transporting our demo wheelchair from UofT’s Rehabilitation Sciences Building, at 500 University Avenue, to the Metro Toronto Convention Center. The plan of action was straightforward but daunting, made worse by my inexperience at operating a motorized wheelchair (I’d never driven one before!). After leaving the lab and doing some practice driving in the hallway to boost my confidence, I was off!
Immediately upon entering the elevator, I realized how difficult it was to reach the buttons. I knew that if I drove into trouble anywhere on my trip, I could stand up and try to sort out my problem, but I resolved at this point to make the entire journey without cheating. After some negotiating, I was able to reach the buttons and head to ground level. The ramp at the back of the building was easily navigated, even while covered in scaffolding, and I set off up the street. The first major concession I had to make on my trip was driving all the way to Queen’s Park Station (an extra 450m) because St. Patrick Station is not accessible. After arriving at Queen’s Park, I purchased my token and headed down to the platform.
I especially liked the TTC elevators for having both front and back doors so I could drive straight through instead of trying to turn around or back out (something I am really bad at). Once on the platform, I waited for the train, slightly anxious that I wouldn’t be lined up with a door in time to board, but was able to catch the first train that came through. I parked as close as I could to the priority seating, although the passengers sitting in the fold-up seats did not seem interested in moving for me. I darted off the train at Union and made my way to the elevators. Exiting Union Station proved to be the most difficult part of the trip. Due to ongoing construction, some routes are closed and others inaccessible, so I asked for directions several times. I was able to navigate into the Skywalk without assistance, save for one set of doors with no power opener (opened for me by a GO passenger). The trip down to the hall of the MTCC for the showcase went smoothly, save for a minor mishap backing out of an elevator.
Overall, I was impressed by how easy the trip was. The only thing that took a significant amount of extra time was driving to a further subway station. I also developed a new appreciation for the importance of good elevator design. Ironically, driving in elevators were some of the most stressful parts of the trip.
This trip made me realize that applying the “accessible” label, and including the bare minimum of accessibility features isn’t good enough; the features really need to be user friendly. Elevators that are too small, gaps between trains and platforms, and accessible stations scattered far apart are all examples of areas that could be improved upon given interest and investment.Read More
“Know thy user” is a mantra well-known to anyone in the field of product development. As a founder of a new start-up that develops accessible technologies for independent mobility, and as someone who has never experienced a mobility impairment except for the occasional and minor knee injuries, I realised that I needed to better understand the accessibility challenges of my users before I attempted to come up with solutions. I figured a good way to do this was to experience first-hand what it is like to drive around the Greater Toronto Area in a wheelchair.
In our blog series called “Wheeling around the GTA”, my team members and I share our various trips within the GTA – the good, the bad, and the ugly. As all of my team members would agree, we noticed several issues (some related to the environment, and others related to mindsets and attitudes) that we perhaps would never have recognized if it wasn’t for our (brief) lived experiences in wheeling around.
We hope that this blog brings some of these issues to the forefront for those who are unaware of them, in addition to providing a public platform where others can share their own accessibility challenges, or those of their loved ones. If you have a story to share, please contact us and write for our blog!Read More