Permobile Chief Information Officer Olof Hedin demonstrating the connected wheelchair. Jessica Dolcout/CNET
LAS VEGAS – It may be the world’s most souped-up wheelchair.
One of the niftier “smart” product demonstrations at this year’s CTIA Wireless industry conference was a motorized wheelchair built by Sweden’s Permobil. The wheelchair, a modified version of the company’s roughly $35,000 flagship F5 model, hooks up to the Internet through an AT&T connection.
Permobil’s wheelchair is an apt illustration of the concept of the Internet of Things, the notion that virtually everything around us will one day be able to go online and talk with each other. The wheelchair taps a cellular connection to relay results of diagnostic tests, fire off an alert if it has fallen over and provide family members with the ability to track a loved one.
The smart wheelchair means you’re never disconnected
It’s also an example of the type of innovation that can spring from adding a cellular radio to a once “dumb” product. Permobil engineers were only concerned with diagnostic information initially. But they layered on more features as they got a better grasp of the capabilities of Dallas-based AT&T’s wireless network.
“It’s the simplicity of the problem-solving that is the coolest part of the innovation,” Glenn Lurie, chief executive of AT&T’s mobility unit, said in an interview. He had earlier touted the connected wheelchair in his keynote address at the conference.
Currently the wheelchair exists only as a prototype and was brought to the CTIA conference to demonstrate a connected product. But Permobil hopes to sell a version next year.
One tricked-out wheelchair
When Permobil wanted to add connectivity to the wheelchair, its engineers paid a visit to AT&T’s Dallas “Foundry.” The center is one of four AT&T maintains around the world at which partners test ideas that take advantage of its network. The Dallas facility focuses on the Internet of Things.
Permobil’s primary goal was to research ways the chair could send diagnostic information to a remote office tasked with maintaining and managing a fleet of wheelchairs, which can travel as fast as 7.5 miles per hour and have a range of 16 miles.
That was just the beginning.
“As we got in there, we started to ask what else we could with the chair,” said Chris Penrose, senior vice president in charge of Internet of Things at AT&T, in an interview.
The teams added an accelerometer, like the one found in your smartphone that detects motion, so the wheelchair could notify someone if it tipped over. They also developed separate dashboards — one for a technician examining the wheelchair’s status and another for a clinician looking at the person.
Some people who require these kinds of motorized wheelchairs — Permobil said George H.W. Bush and Stephen Hawking use its products — have specific medical needs and instructions on how to specifically sit in the chair. A connected wheelchair can relay information such as the angle of the incline to ensure the person is in the proper position.
Family members, meanwhile, can easily locate the wheelchair through the cellular radio. Olof Hedin, chief information officer of Permobil, said users could set up a “geofence,” a virtual perimeter that would trigger an alert if the wheelchair crossed past it.
“We’re really unlocking the potential to create the coolest wheelchair out there,” Penrose said.