Chair is wheelie good to talk to

May 21, 2004

It will talk to you when you are feeling down, wheel you where you need to go and even contact your family if you need a hand.

This is researchers' vision for "RoboChair" - a blueprint for an intelligent wheelchair that could help the elderly and disabled lead independent lives.

Academics from Essex University and their counterparts at the Institute of Automation in Beijing have won a £50,000 grant from the Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences for the three-year project to develop the low-cost, mass-market wheelchair equipped with an array of sensors.

Huosheng Hu, who is leading the human-centred robotics project at Essex, said that RoboChair could be programmed to follow a route or navigate its way around obstacles.

It could also become like a "personal assistant or friend", programmed to interact - particularly talk - to its user and recognise their emotions, Professor Huosheng said. "The RoboChair may give audio-speech encouragement if the user looks sad, or cool him down if he looks angry, and so on," he added.

Professor Huosheng explained that a RoboChair could monitor the facial expressions or hand gestures of its user and match them to a database of the user's "emotion templates" to decide how to respond.

It could also relay information about its location to carers or relatives, he said, and would use infra-red and laser sensors and a global positioning system to "autonomously navigate".

Professor Huosheng added: "We will have to go step by step. First of all we'll be looking at the inside of a house, then at short distances out of the door then to longer distances, but there are issues about battery life."

The academic team may look for a commercial sponsor to help market the wheelchair if the project is successful.

A spokesperson for Age Concern said that low-tech answers to mobility problems - improving access to buildings or improving pavements - were as important as hi-tech projects.

"But we think this is a very positive project that older people and people with disabilities are going to want to find out more about."

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