A New Wheelchair Wants to Make Users Part of The Conversation

This Japanese car brand is looking to drive mobility to be more inclusive.

Dec 27, 2023
A New Wheelchair Wants to Make Users Part of The Conversation | This Japanese car brand is looking to drive mobility to be more inclusive.

A revolutionary wheelchair prototype from Honda, the automobile makers with a fitting tagline of “How we move you,” may just positively shake up the functionality as well as the looks of a mobility aid that doesn’t seem to the lay person to have changed much in decades. This is exciting news, as in the US alone, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals, over 12 percent of people face serious mobility issues.

A different type of wheelchair
As Freethink reports, the UNI-ONE from Honda Robotics is a prototype of a hands-free wheelchair  that users steer with their body weight, just like the Segway, a now obsolete personal transporter. This makes it easier for those with mobility issues, and even people without them, to get around. 

This is a mobility device that glides. Honda reports that the user can move naturally seated in it, and in all directions as if they were walking. They can do this by shifting their body weight while sitting. This empowers users to enjoy their mobility, the company believes.

This hands-free wheelchair offers users several potential benefits, Freethink explains. Essentially, it frees up a disabled person to multitask while in the wheelchair, just like people are able to do while walking. No longer needing to propel this mobility aid with their hands, users can eat a snack, or make a call on their mobile while moving. It also promises greater independence; many people will be able to achieve mobility without the help of a caregiver.

Other tech-led features Honda highlights include posture sensors. These detect the user’s natural postural movements. By using data like inclination angle and angular velocity, an “intention estimation controller” works out an estimate of the user’s intentions, such as whether they wish to stay in place or move forward, and at which speed. 

Meanwhile, a “stabilization controller” performs calculations to guide the wheels so that the device doesn’t lean too far, applying feedback control to achieve natural movement at a comfortable speed. Or as Gamers Subculture  puts it,  offering a seamless and intuitive control mechanism.

Designboom details how Honda has considered uneven ground and roads which can impact a rider’s posture by, for instance, installing soft rubber for the wheels and on the surface of the seat to better balance the rider.

Standing tall
Perhaps one of the most equalizing strengths of UNI-ONE is its ability to bring the user nearer to the eye level of the standing, able-bodied people around them. This facilitates a more natural kind of social interaction with others, and gives users a sense of now being looked down on, as Designboom observes.

Unlike most wheelchairs, which force users to remain in a seated position, this Honda prototype can change its height. As Honda outlines, it adopts a “low position” for more stability while the user is getting on and is strapped in, when the main wheel automatically retracts, lowering the chair's center of gravity and deploying four prop legs to ensure stability or if a possible fall is predicted. But then, with a simple button press, it shifts to its “high position” once moving, when users can also steer it with a joystick.

Affordability and access are significant aspects too. While the specs and cost of this Honda mobility device aren’t finalized, it is battery powered, which could bring running costs down. The company also plans to lease rather than sell the UNI-ONE, especially to public venues such as amusement parks, college campuses and other places where people are likely to walk long distances, which should open up access.

As Freethink reveals, UNI-ONE Isn’t the first hands-free wheelchair, but costs of these other models can be high. Arizona-based company, Omeo, has one that costs circa 30,000 US dollars in the US.

Too cool for school?
Of course, as with many design-aware innovations, a number of critics believe that Honda’s new wheelchair needs more tweaks before its functionality matches its impressive design.

Commenters on Honda’s promotional video are quick to point out its possible limitations.  Davidchidgey6409 is one of them: “Great concept. Have you considered the need for arm rests for users with less upper body strength and shoulder issues?” he asks. Ginacalcerano99 doesn’t mince her words: “Where can you put your stuff? No place for your books, your purse, or your arms for that matter!”

It is very possible, however,  that Honda will address these concerns in advance of a planned 2025 launch. 

And this unusual mobility prototype is already receiving accolades. In tribute to its cutting-edge design and impactful contribution to enhancing mobility, the UNI-ONE wheelchair was awarded the prestigious Good Design Gold Award at the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry Awards 2022, reports Gamers Subculture. Mashable India credits Honda with offering a glimpse into the future of mobility for people of all abilities.

The company also envisages that the UNI-ONE will surpass its primary aim of assisting people with mobility issues. It is hoped that the chair’s intuitive design may find applications in virtual reality gaming and in sports, boosting its overall experience and accessibility.

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.