If a wheelchair could make sharp turns and travel over grass, gravel and snow it would look like the WHILL
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Credit: WHILL

WHILL is a personal mobility device that makes getting around easily. Without FDA approval, it is not a wheelchair, but it has raised more than $30k to help those with mobility needs

Credit: WHILL

Credit: WHILL

Personal mobility is easily taken for granted by those of us able to walk and get around as we please. But for someone confined to a wheelchair, getting around is no easy thing.

To help solve this problem, Japanese company WHILL has designed a new personal mobility device that has a very tight turning radius of 28 degrees, can climb hills at a 10 degree incline and has four wheel drive so users can drive over dirt, grass and even snow.

WHILL is looking to fund its product on Kickstarter and on Sunday, June 29, reached its $30,000 goal. With 11 days to go, WHILL has already raised $34,435 from 203 backers who want to help bring the product to market.

WHILL said its mission is to change the negative perception of mobility devices by redefining their design. The product, however, cannot be called a wheelchair because it does not have FDA clearance as a medical device. Leaving regulations and labels behind, the product is a personal mobility device that can help people get around.

It started with a need

The WHILL team decided to create its product in 2010 when they heard a friend in a wheelchair say: “I’ve even given up on going to the grocery store two blocks away.”

Their friend was embarrassed to be seen in a wheelchair and didn’t want to be seen as just a “wheelchair user.”

The team designed the product for their friend and after a year of development exhibited the product at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show. The reaction showed the team that many people wanted their device, so they founded WHILL to make the product for others.

What makes the WHILL special is its front wheels that are made of 24 small rollers that allow for tight turns and have four wheel drive capabilities. It also has an adjustable seat and armrests that can me moved forward and backwards for comfort, attachments for accessories like a cup holder, a flashlight and a smartphone and hooks that can hold a backpack or a bag on the back.

Credit: WHILL

Credit: WHILL

WHILL has a controller located on the tip of the front arm, but users can choose which arm. Users can also choose whether they want to use the controller as a mouse, a joystick or a ergonomic controller. If none of those control methods are suitable, the WHILL will also be able to be controlled by a smartphone, which can work as a remote control via bluetooth. That feature is still being designed.

The real test

WHILL was created by a group of Japanese engineers who had worked at automakers and consumer electronics companies such as Nissan, Toyota, Sony and Olympus. The team, led by CEO Satoshi Sugie, launched the Kickstarter campaign on June 11 to fund its fine tuning of the product. The team said the hardware design is near completion, but the software integration is still at an early stage. Funds from the campaign will be used to develop WHILL’s smartphone app and cover mechanical engineering, electrical circuit design, software programming and user-interface design.

Supporters of the campaign can invest $10 to test drive the device at WHILL’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, $20 for a tshirt designed by surfing brand EZEKIEL, $40 to visit WHILL’s R&D office in Tokyo, and $100 to meet with the founders at the headquarters in Silicon Valley. To get the device, backers must invest $9,500, or $10,000 for a special Kickstarter version of the device. Already two investors have pledged $9,500 and one has pledged $10,000. WHILL intends to deliver the devices in December.

To celebrate reaching its $30,000 goal, WHILL went to Disneyland in California. But the trip wasn’t all just for fun. The team was testing the device through the massive crowds, bumps and narrow paths where people line up for rides.

Things seem to be going well until the team got to “Star Tours,” a 3D Star Wars simulation ride. The ride operators required WHILL’s resident user Julia Olson to sit in a regulation wheelchair for the ride. That chair had trouble getting through the doorway to the seating to the ride. But the team insists that the WHILL would have better been able to maneuver that entrance. It’s too bad that regulations sometimes get in the way of efficiency here. But maybe seeking FDA approval should be WHILL’s next step if it really wants to make it big.

Video: Advanced personal mobility

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Aviva Gat

About Aviva Gat


Olah Chadasha and former finance reporter from New York City. Gat is a writer, runner and traveler who came to Israel for the good food and weather. She writes for Geektime’s English and global desk.

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