The Future is Here: The Space-Age Wheelchair

sugie_wheelchairFor people suffering from full or partial paralysis, interacting with the physical world can be constant source of frustration. Not only is said world designed by and for people who do not suffer from the same physical limitations, the devices used to restore mobility are so often limited themselves. Luckily, the technology is improving, thanks to input from people who have mobility issues themselves.

That’s what Satoshi Sugie, a former Japanese car designer, decided to do when he became interested in the mobility industry. After meeting a frustrated wheelchair user in Japan in 2010, he became inspired to come up with something that would address the wheelchair’s limitations and the stigma people who used them continue to suffer with.

sugie_wheelchair_oldAs Sugie describes the encounter:

He said he gave up going even two blocks away. One reason was he didn’t want to be seen. There is a negative stigma attached to the wheelchair. The second one is the functional limitation. If there is a bump, he has to avoid it. He was really scared to go outside.

Sugie was working for Nissan at the time, designing futuristic models for motor shows, but this encounter inspired him to try his hand at futuristic wheelchair design as well. His first prototype – known as the WHILL – was released in 2011. This was a sort of turbo-charger for existing wheelchairs, and was described as a pair of enormous “headphones” given its appearance.

sugie_wheelchair1The latest version, known as the Whill Type-A, is a standalone chair aimed not just at wheelchair users, but power chair and mobility scooters riders as well. The new model is different from normal wheelchairs in several key ways. First of all, people can naturally lean forward in this chair, as they would riding a bike. This eliminates slouching and therefore makes for a more comfortable ride.

Second, the front wheel is composed of 24 separate tires, giving the vehicle very tight turning ability. And three, it looks “modern and sleek,” like something you would expect from a Japanese car designer. Riders control the Whill with a right-hand joystick while the left-hand has a simple fast- and slow-mode switch. It can also handle obstacles up to three inches high with easy, and seat rolls forwards and backwards, making getting in and out easy.


sugie_wheelchair2Sugie, who recently relocated to Menlo Park, California, is still working out pricing, but he hopes it won’t be too expensive. The wheelchair will be officially unveiled this February, and is likely to be cost a premium penny. Still, the advantages it offers are sure to go over well with wheelchair users and become something of the norm for the next-generation of such vehicles.

In addition to ease of use and the mobility it provides, it also lend users a certain high-tech chic, which may go a long way towards combatting the sense of social stigma many users feel.



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