Winter Quarter 2009 Course Announcement

Perspectives in Assistive Technology

David L. Jaffe, MS and Professor Drew Nelson
Tuesdays & Thursdays   4:15pm - 5:30pm
Main Quad, History Corner, Lane Hall (Building 200), Room 034 (lower level)

2009 Project Suggestions

Projects suggested by Henry Evans

eBuddy: One recent idea addresses this problem: I miss going out with my friends. Technically, they can drag me with them, but rarely do. So my idea turns the problem around. If you think about it, all I really need to send are my retinas, my eardrums, and my vocal chords. So do this: create a small "pod" that hangs around the neck of your friend. When you turn it on it seeks and find the strongest wireless modem signal available. Then it begins streaming live video. It also employs a microphone and speaker so you can see, hear, and talk to your buddies. The able-bodied population would also find it enormously useful to be in two places at the same time.

Wheelchair anti-sway / tip-ease bar: Most Manual wheelchairs are one of two types; rigid frame, which transmit self-propelled energy directly to the wheels, and folding wheelchairs, which are often used for portability and when energy loss is no concern because the person has to be pushed anyway. The problem with the folding wheelchair is that it has an "x" frame to facilitate folding. It has no solid rear axle that the pusher can use as a fulcrum when tipping the chair to go over an obstacle. Instead, the pusher usually uses the wheelchair's anti-tip bars, which are often made of light aluminum and snap because they were not designed for lateral loads. The solution is to design a removable bar that would span the distance between the two sockets meant for the anti-tip bars. Not only would this provide a sturdy fulcrum to tip the chair, it would also stiffen the frame so "self-propellers" would find it more efficient. Additionally, the sockets on the back of the bar could provide a mounting place for the anti-tip bars, which prevent the chair from tipping too far back.

Electric scoop bowl: Scoop bowls are ubiquitous - they are a normal plate with one high side so people like me can scoop food onto a spoon. The problem is that food gets pushed out of reach after a few attempts. The solution would be to put two rotating disks in the plate which would constantly bring the food back to where you could reach it, and be waterproof for washing.

Dynavox (electronic communication device) projects:

Improving Dynavox intelligibility: this project involves displaying on a screen what is being said by the text to speech engine so as to present "subtitles" to increase understanding. The hardware is already available; it plugs into a USB port. The problem is that it does not automatically display all words spoken by the speech engine. It just needs the right driver written for it.

Inflection software: This is deceptively simple, yet would greatly improve the intelligibility of text-speech engines. Inflection in such engines is currently pretty random, rendering them only partly intelligible. The idea is simple; instead of the traditional uses of capitol letters, use them to indicate to the computer when to temporarily increase volume, to mimic inflection. One could either modify an existing speech engine or just write some software to demonstrate the effect.

Foreign language modules: Caregivers are often foreign, and speak little English. Record basic commands, like 'please feed me' in foreign languages, with the buttons titled in English.

Wireless dog treat dispenser: Many disabled (not just blind) people use highly trained dogs. Some individuals with disabilities are not able to reward their behavior with treats. Hence, the idea - my Dynavox can be easily programmed to speak dog commands, and can even issue an x10 RF signal when asked. The idea would be to buy an RF switch at Radio Shack and invent a simple wireless dog treat dispenser that it would operate.

Project Contact:
Henry Evans
0524 -at-

Back to top

Articulating Toilet Seat

Problem: The use of the toilet can create considerable challenges for patients with mobility issues. It can be difficult and dangerous to back up and position one's self safely onto a flat toilet seat and then return to a standing position.

Aim: Explore designs for a toilet seat that can elevate several inches and shift forward at approximately 30° to meet the patient and offer support while gently lowering him/her down. Afterwards, it can assist in returning the patient to a standing position. The benefits to the patient are comfort, confidence, and safety as well as independence and privacy.

Specifications: The standard toilet is 13" tall, approximately the same height as the distance from the floor to the pivot point for an adult knee. There are two existing holes for mounting a seat. There is a ready power source in the form of 25 psi of hydraulic pressure at the water source to power the articulating toilet seat and, with the addition of arm rests in a framework that rises and falls, could assure both confidence and safety to what is currently a daily danger. This device should not require any modifications to the toilet itself.

Project Contact:
Dennis DeGray
degray -at-

Back to top

Podna Designs Projects

Explore design concepts for:

  1. easy access to dresser and closet
  2. enhanced nursing home security
  3. a modified rollator (official name for a walker)
Project Contact:
Elaine Levin
podnadesigns -at-

Back to top

Voice-Activated Clock-Radio & Television Remote Control

Explore design concepts for voice-activated devices such as the Invoca - Digital PLL Voice-Activated Clock Radio

Project Contact:
Ken Pollock
kennethpollock -at-
Invoca Radio

Back to top

Music Controller

Explore designs for a device that would be used in any rehabilitation activity that involves moving a limb (or prosthetic) for exercise, or increasing strength (using a weight), or increasing range of motion, or flexibility, or coordination. This would be used by folks with paralysis or weakness due to stroke or brain injury. Certainly the exercise aspect would be useful for older folks. The controller could be located on various body parts including the arms, legs, foot, or trunk. Other applications of the device are control of a music performance or powered prosthetic as well as operation of a computer keyboard, mouse, or joystick.

Project Contact:
Mark Goldstein
kvetch -at-

Back to top

Active Bed

Explore designs for an instrumented bed that would actively sense the user and adjust itself to maintain a straight spine position.


  • There are millions of people with "bad backs"

  • Sleeping with improper spine alignment is one source of the problem

  • The old recommendation was to use a very hard bed. I believe that is bad advice. Most people are wider at the shoulder than at the waist, so for people who sleep on their sides, a hard bed pushes their shoulder up relative to their waist, misaligning their spine. Softer beds actually do this too, since the top and bottom are anchored to the edges and don't sink down the same way the middle of the bed does.

  • I think the current recommendation is "whatever works best", which is not much of a recommendation at all, given the cost and difficulty of trying alternate beds.

  • Another problem is that different people concentrate their weight at different places--upper body, hips, legs, etc. This makes for uneven sinking into the bed, again misaligning back and hips.

  • "Memory foam" beds may help, though I still think they are subject to the shoulder problem and the uneven weight problem. In any event, the feeling in these beds is similar to lying in sand. It conforms to your body, but does not have the softness most people prefer.

My solution

A bed that uses many air chambers that are automatically inflated/deflated as necessary during the night to keep the shoulders, spine, hips, and legs correctly aligned regardless of the position of the sleeper.

The mechanics of building the chambers and controlling them worth software does not sound too difficult. The hard part will be sensing the position of the body in different orientations. This could be a two-stage process. A one-time procedure could involve imaging the body and perhaps using many devices such as LEDs or RFID tags to find the correct alignment in the person's common sleeping positions. That would reduce the real-time problem at night to just identifying the position (left side, right side, etc.) and adjusting the air chambers accordingly.

In terms of the level of disability, waking up with a sore back is not at the top of the list. You just carry on. But if you use "(level of disability) x (number of people) " as a measure, then I think that this project would be seen as something worth pursuing.

If any students are interested, I would enjoy meeting them. That might be helpful since I suffer from these problems myself. BTW, Select Comfort makes and air bed that has some of these features, but there is no sensing and I believe the chambers are linked together in groups. Take a look at the attached drawing--it's from their own website, but the spine is not perfectly aligned, and there appears to be no support at the waist. They use one number to control the whole bed, which does not seem like enough information. Their beds might be a good source of parts, though. If every one of those chambers was individually adjustable, then that would be the bed that is needed.

Project Contact:
Bob Plummer
plummer -at-

Back to top

Projects with Residents at Sunrise Senior Living

Resident's comments:

Most everyone said they they have made allowances for their age and diminishing abilities, but don't consider themselves disabled.

Several residents still drive, but others don't. The loss of the ability to drive is pretty devastating and difficult to prepare for.

Some residents reported difficult reading small fonts.

Several individuals commented they have difficulty getting up from a couch.

The "folks on the third floor" are less independent and require more assistance with activities of daily living. They need to be under constant supervision because some can not find their own way and get lost. Others have "mental issues". Some may want to prepare their own meals or engage in art activities.

Bob is a former editor of a golf magazine and would like to be able to golf better. When he was younger he also enjoyed playing baseball.

Hilda uses a custom-made walker from "Yes I Can" because she has balance problems. However, she typically has to temporarily store her walker away from where she sits.

"Al" is an 88 year-old retired salesman of jukeboxes and games originally from New York. In his younger days, he enjoyed travelling, gambling, meeting people, and attending plays and sporting events. Since most of the residents in the facility are women, he does not have many male companions. He says that if he lived in San Francisco or New York City, he would find more activities. Although his son lives nearby, he can only stop by once a week for a couple of hours. He is a little hard-of-hearing and tends to repeat his life story. He desperately wants something to give him a "reason for living".

Staff's comments:

Nancy said that there is a problem with managing residents' walkers and wheelchairs at social gatherings and in the dining room.

Charmaine commented that they always have difficulties transferring residents to/from their bed, wheelchair, and commode.

Margaret noted that it can be challenging to collect all the residents and get them to walk together to a specific room in the facility for an event.

Project Contact:
Mercedes Roses
paloalto.dcr2 -at-

Back to top

Projects with Members of the VA SCI Peer Support Group

Ralph would like a device to aid in propelling a manual wheelchair outdoors

Richard is a quadriplegic who needs to operate his cellphone without hands.

Richard2 needs a better device to help his wife safely transfer him into and out of his wheelchair.

Deane and Mike would like increased access to ATM machines, especially to handle the bankcard.

Richard would like to use a elevator call device designed for quadriplegic wheelchair users.

Ralph has an idea for a device to facilitate pressure relief using the strength in his shoulders.

Esaul and Dave expressed an interest in monitoring the status of their cushions and having a sophisticated means of determining when they need to perform a pressure relief.

Project Contact:
Deane F. Denney
denney -at-

Back to top

Projects with Residents at Webster House

Mary is worried about falling, has difficulty handling her pill bottles, and opening jars.

Virginia has a hard time reaching items in her pantry, getting out of her chair, and rotating her chair to a desired position.

Shannon has difficult getting to items from locations near the floor.

Project Contact:
Liliana Kaszuba
websterhouse.dcr -at-

Back to top

Projects with Bike Riders

Two individuals who are stroke survivors ride their bikes for exercise. One rides a recumbent and the other rides a trike. Securing their affected feet on the pedals is a major problem that both experience. The recumbent rider currently uses a bungee cord fitted behind the heel of his toe-clipped shoe. However, he can not donn the device independently, someone else has to assist.

Both riders also have difficulty (to varying degrees) getting on their bikes. One also has problems with knee alignment during pedaling.

Explore designs to independently secure rider's feet to the pedals and address problems getting on and pedaling the bikes.

Project Contact:
Debbie Kenney
kenney5 -at-

Back to top

One-Handed Game Controller

Explore design concepts for a game controller for service members (veterans and active duty personnel) with brain injury or stroke.

Project Contact:
Susan A. Feighery, MS, TRS
Lead Recreation Therapist
VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Polytrauma Transitional Rehabilitation Program
650/493-5000 ext 6-2215
susan.feighery -at-

Back to top

Projects in Palo Alto VA Spinal Cord Injury Lab

  1. Interface and data acquisition system for upper-arm ergonometer
  2. Device to transduce and record arm motions
Project Contacts:
Jenny Kiratli, PhD
jenny.kiratli -at-

Nelson Sierra - Laboratory Manager
nelson.sierra -at-

Back to top

Projects in Stanford's Motion & Gait Analysis Laboratory

  1. Center of Mass for Artificial Walking
    Device to detect changes in the center of mass while walking

  2. iGait Next Generation
    Add emg input and refine previous student prototype to make it smaller, lighter, and incorporate new sounds

  3. Knee / hip angle biofeedback device
    Provide sound-based biofeedback to hip and knee angle sensors

  4. Spascity Monitor
    Monitor motion or emg inputs of body parts subject to spascity in folks with SCI, CP, or stroke

Note: Students who continue working on these projects in the Spring Quarter must take ORTHO 299 (Directed Reading in Orthopedic Surgery) for 2 credits.

Project Contact:
Jessica Rose, PhD
jessica.rose -at-

Back to top

Shopping Carts for Wheelchair Users

Problem: Wheelchair users who shop have difficulties in pushing around a standard shopping cart. Users of manual wheelchairs have to both propel their wheelchair and steer the shopping cart. Powered wheelchair users have similar problems maintaining contact with the cart as they make their way down the aisles.

Aim: Explore new shopping cart designs or adaptations that would permit wheelchair users to maneuver their shopping carts.


Project Contact:
Prof. Drew Nelson
dnelson -at-

Back to top

Opening Doors

Problem: Getting through doors can be a significant problem for users of wheelchairs. If the door does not have an automatic opening mechanism, they typically have to push the door open with their wheelchair. This requires additional strength of the manual wheelchair operator and careful maneuvering by users of powered wheelchairs.

A more difficult situation occurs itself when the user has to pull the door open. For users of manual wheelchairs, they have to proceed forward to grab the door, move the wheelchair in reverse with their other hand/arm, and choreograph a quick push forward before the door closes on them. Powered wheelchair users often do not have enough grasp strength to successfully get through the doorway independently.

Some types of doors can be especially troublesome - doors with a strong return force, some automatically operated doors, double doors, and the gates between tracks at CalTrain stations.

Aim: The goal of this project is to explore design concepts and working prototype devices that address and remedy these problems.


Project Contact:
Ron Sidell
Ophoenix Public Benefit Corporation
ron -at-

Back to top

Other Ideas

  1. Accessible interfaces for commonly-used devices:
    iPods / mp3 players
    Cell phones
    Remote controls

  2. Revisit projects listed in NSF guide:
    Engineering Senior Design Projects to Aid Persons with Disabilities

  3. Student-defined projects:
    Interview, observe, and discuss assistive technology needs with an individual with a disability. Address their need to participate in the following areas by designing a device that either facilitates using usual tools or creates a new tool.

    Creative Expression - writing, painting, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, photography, music, etc

    Activities of Daily Living - cooking, dressing, cleaning, housework, yardwork, employment, education, shopping, commuting, etc

    Sports and Exercise - walking, running, indoor and outdoor sports, etc

    Leisure Activities and Hobbies - collecting, model making, crafts, board games & videogames, etc

Project Coach:
David L. Jaffe, MS

Back to top

Updated 02/11/2009

Back to Homepage

back to homepage