In the United States, 2.7 million Americans over the age of 15 use a wheelchair for at least some of their mobility needs. For individuals with
severe physical impairments, new engineering developments, particularly in computing, offer opportunities to improve their mobility. In our work, we are developing a voice-commandable wheelchair that is aware of its surroundings and can assist its user in mobility and other tasks. The wheelchair employs sensors to perceive its surroundings, a speech interface to interpret commands, a wireless device for room-level location determination, and motor-control software to effect the wheelchair’s motion. It learns the layout of its user’s environment through a narrated, guided tour given by the user or the user’s caregivers; subsequently, the
wheelchair can move to any previously named location under voice command (e.g., "Take me to the dining room"). Currently, we are working closely with residents and staff at The Boston Home, an assisted-living facility for individuals with advanced multiple sclerosis and other progressive neurological diseases, to ensure that our work is aligned and relevant to the goals and lives of people who use wheelchairs. Our long-term goal is to showcase how new assistive technologies, when designed in close collaboration with their end users, can lead to significant improvements in their mobility and quality of life.