by TOM DOWLING, editor
TWENTY years ago, while giving a talk at my boys’ primary school about what it’s like being paralysed and spending all my time in a wheelchair, one inquisitive girl asked: “If you had just one wish what would it be?”
Tough one, that.
“That I could fly,” I replied.
Her eyes lit up, her jaw dropped: “Like Superman?”
She thought for a few moments. “Well, you’ll need an engine and a parachute.”
I hadn’t thought of that …
The story came back to me when I heard about a new initiative that car giant Toyota have dreamed up to stretch people’s imaginations.
For the past few years the company has been running its worldwide competition – the Mobility Unlimited Challenge with $4 million in prizes – for the best ideas to improve lives for paralysed people.
Now, as an extension to the project, they have commissioned three short pieces of speculative fiction, imagining the possible futures of mobility from the eyes of people with disabilities.
Going Further: Imagining the Futures of Mobility is an inspiring collection of three short future fiction stories, set in the near future, exploring the potential impact of assistive technologies on the lives of those with lower-limb paralysis.
The Velocity of Freefall by Brianna Albers follows wheelchair-user Blaire, accompanied by her partner Jacen, as she overcomes her fears and fully realises her dream of travelling across the world on a life-changing adventure.
Penny Pepper’s time travel future tale, Skye Finds Her Magic, sees young Skye and her father take flight into a marvellous imagined future where the assistive technology available to members of the disability community means the world is full of new possibilities.
John Wiswell’s romance, Let Me Show You Something, tells the story of Carter who, with the help of his partner Zia, reclaims the wilderness for himself following the accident that left him paralysed.
During a time when everyone’s ability to travel has been severely restricted, the stories are even more pertinent.
The anthology is illustrated by UK-based Ciara Chapman. She says: “Our current situation is one faced by people with disabilities throughout their whole lives. While the temptation to become angry and frustrated is there, the reality will remain the same regardless. Therefore, it’s important to take each day as it comes and appreciate the minutiae of life – reading, planting flowers and watching them grow, practising mindfulness and staying connected to the people you love. It’s an opportunity to find out what really matters.”
The five finalists in Toyota’s competition are:
The Evowalk: Evolution Devices (United States): The EvoWalk is a smart wearable leg sleeve that helps people with partial lower limb paralysis regain their mobility. The EvoWalk AI system uses sensors to predict the user’s walking motion and stimulates the right muscles at the right time to help them walk better. This personalized timed muscle stimulation, that helps user’s contract their muscles as they walk, will not only help them day to day but will also rehabilitate the muscles and neural pathways over time.
Phoenix Ai Ultralight Wheelchair: Phoenix Instinct (United Kingdom): The Phoenix AI wheelchair is an ultra-lightweight manual wheelchair made from carbon-fiber. Using smart sensors the chair will configure itself to what the user is doing so it remains in sync with how the user moves. The sensors detect if the user is leaning forward or back, algorithms will calculate the wheelchair’s response. The Phoenix Ai will have many smart functions never before seen in wheelchairs, at the core is an intelligent centre of gravity. The chair will continually adjust its centre of gravity to fit what the user is doing making for a chair that is easier to push and turn by eliminating drag and uncomfortable, painful vibration while also making the chair safe from falling backwards. Intelligent, lightweight power assist will make slopes easier to ascend while automatic braking will remove the need for users to grip the wheels to slow down.
Qolo (Quality of Life with Locomotion): Team Qolo, University of Tsukuba (Japan): The Qolo Standing Device consists of a lightweight, mobile exoskeleton on wheels which uses passive actuators to allow users to sit or stand, effectively removing the ‘chair’ from ‘wheelchair’. Mobility is controlled using the upper body, allowing hands-free operation. The device enables users to travel around in a standing position, changing both physiological and social aspects of everyday living.
Quix: IHMC & MYOLYN (United States): A robotic, powered exoskeleton with motors at the hips, knees and ankles, as well as additional actuators offering someone with lower-limb paralysis fast, stable, and agile upright mobility. Utilising modular actuation, perception technology from autonomous vehicles, and control algorithms for balancing autonomous humanoid robots, this device will deliver the mobility, safety, and independence that current exoskeletons cannot. The device will improve accessibility in society – especially at home and work. .
WheeM-i: Italdesign (Italy): The first mobility service created for wheelchair users. It’s the cycle share scheme equivalent for wheelchair users. Consisting of a series of wheel-on electric devices, located in urban hubs, it will make travelling around cities much simpler and easier for people with lightweight manual wheelchairs. Connected via an app, it will enable users to interact with the device, other wheelchair users and other means of transport.
The winner will be announced next year.