The Eloranta Project

MIT administers a work/study grant program called the Eloranta Fellowship, designed to allow undergraduates to pursue an interesting, self-designed, independent research project during their summer break from school. During my research for the Manus project (described elsewhere), I had the opportunity to have some extensive discussions with rehabilitation therapists at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. They described a patient need that was not being fulfilled by Manus - there was no good way to train motorized wheelchair users in how to use their chairs, without just letting them drive around crashing into walls. From this my Eloranta project proposal was born - a "flight simulator" for motorized wheelchairs.

The original proposal involved renting a chair so I could do firsthand investigation of the issues involved. A few weeks before the end of classes, however, I was offered a remarkable opportunity to extend the research - Burke Rehabilitation Hospital (in White Plains New York) has a summer internship program for pre-med students. Those students work one-on-one with patients at the hospital as temporary nurse's aides. (It's not a glamorous job - emptying bedpans and leg bags are a big part of what aides do).

So, I went to Burke...and surreptitiously interviewed the nurses and therapists there, and observed the patients. Unlike the folks at Spaulding, however, the folks at Burke thought the flight simulator was a terrible idea ("patients are still in denial about their injuries," one nurse said, "they really don't want to be reminded about what they can't do").

Soldering on, I rewired an Atari joystick to work like a mouth stick (with a few modifications), so that a 14-year-old quad could play video games (sorta like a flight simulator, but without the painful reminders). I also took the training class for new aides at Burke, which involved, among other things, tooling around in a wheelchair for a day.

Most of what I gleaned from that experience I already knew - turning radiuses and "wall jamming" are simple mechanical concepts. My intellectual knowledge of friction and inertia was considerably enhanced by experiencing the chair in the carpeted lobby versus the tiled hallways.

I also had a near death experience. Tooling at a good clip down the hall, I took a sharp left turn into what looked like an open elevator door, only to see, at the last second, four vertical cables dangling in front of my face. I managed to brake in time, toes not quite over the edge. Only after backing up did I see the bright yellow caution sign across the doorway - because it was below knee level, it had been completely invisible to me when I turned.

Someday, I will actually complete the flight simulator. I intend to target it at architects and building contractors.