This 'smart' wheelchair knows to send repair notices, health alerts

A prototype wheelchair with a cellular radio illustrates the benefits of connected devices.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
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Permobil CIO Olof Hedin demonstrates 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 here 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 every product around us will one day be online and communicate with us and with other products. The wheelchair taps a cellular connection to relay results of diagnostic tests, fire off an alert if it has fallen over and let family members track a loved one.

A smart wheelchair means you're never disconnected (pictures)

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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 last week's 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 of it 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." It is one of four centers that AT&T maintains around the world where partners test ideas that take advantage of AT&T's 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," Chris Penrose, senior vice president in charge of Internet of Things at AT&T, said 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 checking the wheelchair's status and another for a clinician examining 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 its 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 it.

"We're really unlocking the potential to create the coolest wheelchair out there," Penrose said.