A Japanese startup founded by former automotive engineers wants to turn the wheelchair into an accessory for the tech savvy. Their company, Whill, is building a “personal mobility device” that it says is easier and more comfortable to use than conventional power wheelchairs. Whill’s chair, called the Model A, features an advanced drive system that lets it take tight turns and ride on rough terrain. It also has a minimalist, sleek design that makes it look like it came from a science fiction movie.
This month, Whill plans to start selling the Model A in Japan and the United States (initially only in California, for US $9,500). The company is betting on what might seem like a strange thing: that the global market for wheelchairs will grow at a fast pace, and that users will demand more capable—and better-looking—offerings. Some demographic trends support this: The number of people 65 and older is expected to triple by 2050 to reach 1.5 billion, or about one in every six people on the planet. And the older population is likely to help drive up the number of people with disabilities, which is at 15 percent today, according to the World Health Organization.
CEO and cofounder Satoshi Sugie, who left Nissan to start Whill, tells IEEE Spectrum that he got the idea for the startup when he met a disabled man who would no longer go to the grocery store in his wheelchair because of the way people looked at him. Although wheelchair users are often physically fit, the traditional chair can create the impression that its occupant is weak and helpless, he says.
With that in mind, Sugie and his colleagues set out to completely reenvision—and reengineer—the power wheelchair. One of the key innovations of the Model A is its two front wheels, whose rims are each wrapped with two dozen small rubber tires that turn independently. Designed by a retired Toyota engineer who is on staff at the startup, these omnidirectional wheels allow the chair to move in any direction more easily and with a tight turning radius.
The Model A also has a four-wheel-drive system and a motor controller that let users drive over almost any kind of surface. A lead-acid battery gives the chair a range of nearly 20 kilometers on one charge. To steer it, you can use either a joystick on the armrest or an app on your iPhone.
It’s no coincidence that Whill was founded in Japan (just outside of Tokyo), where more than a quarter of the population is 65 or older, the highest proportion of any country. But Whill also has an office in Silicon Valley, which has a generation of gadget-loving people who are growing old. The initial market will be for the disabled, but the company, which has raised $11 million from Japanese and U.S. investors, hopes to ultimately broaden sales to anyone who has difficulty walking or standing.
The intent is to “create an image that, rather than a chair for the disabled, this is stylish transportation,” says Sugie.
Of course, the big question for Whill is, will it sell?
History is not on the company’s side. Both Toyota and Honda have demonstrated futuristic personal mobility prototypes but haven’t yet commercialized them. In 1999, famed inventor Dean Kamen unveiled a robotic wheelchair called iBot. At $25,000, it was expensive, but it could climb curbs, allow users to raise the seat so that they would be at eye level with a standing person, and even go up and down stairs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it as a medical device, and insurers covered part of the cost. Still, its high cost was one of the reasons it was discontinued in 2009.
IEEE Fellow Rory A. Cooper, a professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at the University of Pittsburgh, says Whill’s chair looks like a good product, but he doesn’t think its technology is particularly innovative. He should know: Cooper, who has used a wheelchair for 30 years, is a world-renowned mobility expert and director of the Center of Excellence in Wheelchairs and Associated Rehabilitation Engineering, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Omnidirectional wheels have been around for 30 years, and four-wheel drive has been around for at least 15 years,” he says.
He adds that if insurers can at least partially cover its cost, Whill may appeal to many adults today who have higher expectations for remaining active longer and are more accepting of technology than previous generations. After all, “today’s 65-year-olds were early adopters of things like personal computers, PDAs, and mobile phones,” he says.
This article originally appeared in print as “Japanese Startup Reinvents the Wheelchair.”
Freelance journalist Tam Harbert has covered technology and business for more than 20 years. Based in Washington, D.C., Harbert says her favorite type of article explains how public policy affects the technology business, or vice versa. She has launched, edited, and written for publications targeting engineers, IT managers, investors, and corporate executives. Harbert has won more than a dozen awards for her work, most recently two awards (2014) from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). She has also received the Jesse H. Neal Award for op-ed writing.