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Robotic wheelchair bolsters mobility

By Mark Baard
March 14, 2011

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ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES
The idea of trusting an autonomous wheelchair might sound a bit risky, like allowing someone to lead you around blindfolded. But when you think of folks with substantial motor impairments — those who must rely on others to help them with every move — the concept begins to make sense.

Computer science students at Mount Holyoke College hope the Independence Enhancing Wheelchair they recently tested will give people with cerebral palsy more control over their lives.

The wheelchair creates a map of its environment and then locates itself within that map as it drives around the college’s South Hadley campus. It uses laser sensors to determine the location and to chart paths to user-designated destinations. Its navigation systems and user interfaces are similar to those being developed for industrial robots.

Using a touch screen, you can switch from manual drive to semi- and fully automated modes. The robot chair can also be operated from a remote PC, connected wirelessly to the chair. Other user interfaces are also possible, the students noted in a recent presentation.

The robotic wheelchair is also fairly skilled at avoiding obstacles.

The students worked with Audrey Lee-St. John, Daniel Barry, William Kennedy, and other faculty advisers.

The wheelchair will soon be used at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

BLUETOOTH ACCESSORIES

SuperTooth speakers boast superior sound

In my experience, the convenience of any wireless speaker or headset comes with an inevitable downside: sketchy sound quality.

But the makers of SuperTooth (www.supertooth.net) wireless devices say they have created the most powerful speakerphone ever, with a microphone sensitive enough to accurately pick up your words, which the device translates into Twitter updates.

The SuperTooth HD, which will be available in April, has 5-watt speakers and a 5.4-watt amplifier.

The device works like many other speakerphones, accepting your voice commands to dial previously dialed numbers, as well as voice mail.

But it is also equipped to make it easy to do your social networking from the road. You can speak to send text messages and e-mails, and make updates to your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

I am also intrigued by another BlueTooth gadget from SuperTooth, already available at retailers. The SuperTooth Disco (about $149) is a portable 28-watt speaker with a bass-boosting button, which you can pair with your smartphone, iPod Touch, or any other BlueTooth device where you keep your tunes.

The Disco has a rechargeable battery that will last for at least three hours before you need to find an outlet. It comes with a 3.5mm cable for plugging into music players not equipped for Blue Tooth.