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Award-Winning Wheelchair Design ‘Goes Hollywood'
By Brad Frischkorn

Cutting-edge wheelchair technology made by Japanese hands is grabbing global attention – both at the sales office and at the box office.

The outlook at WHILL Co., Ltd. (pronounced “will”), manufacturer of possibly the coolest-looking practical ‘personal mobility device’ thus far seen, is looking bright. After winning numerous awards for its innovative designs, the six-year old Silicon Valley-based company was afforded yet another accolade early this year: a cameo role for its Model A unit in the Batman vs. Superman Hollywood film production.

WHILL’s rise to fame sports distinctly Japanese roots. The company’s three founders – Satoshi Sugie, Junpei Naito, and Muneaki Fukuoka, are young veterans of automaker Nissan, consumer tech giant Sony, and medical device maker Olympus, respectively -- some of Japan’s most tech-saavy companies.

Armed with a mission to make technology minimalistic, functional and stylish, the trio struck gold with a positive reception of their prototype unit at the biannual 2011 Tokyo Motor Show. After formally founding their firm in 2012 and moving to the U.S., major accolades followed, including a Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) 2014 innovation award, the 2015 Japan Good Design grand award from Japan Institute of Design Promotion, and, most recently, the grand prize at Pioneers Asia, an event for regional startups, held last March.

And, although the firm’s chair hardly has a starring role in Batman vs. Superman, the film did well at theaters, grossing about $850 million by mid-June.

WHILL’s Model A unit differs from conventional wheelchairs in power, comfort, simplicity, and ease of use. It features four-wheel-drive and large front wheels, an easy grip controller, foldable arms and an electronically adjustable seat. Its electric motor is capable of a maximum speed of 9kph, a 20km range, has enough torque to clear a 3-inch tall obstacle and can navigate a 10-degree incline. Its 28-inch turning radius affords nimble maneuverability over nearly any terrain.A 12-volt 50Ah battery charges up to 80% capacity in eight hours.

“The whole concept behind the WHILL has been to change the public perception of physically disadvantaged people who are in need of better mobility,” says company sales representative Daisuke Otani. “The machine does seem to have an emotional impact.”

Since relocating to the U.S., company designers met with over 400 personal mobility device users to gain further insight on how to refine the chair’s systems. Its backrest, armrest length and angle, seat depth, and foot support angle are all adjustable, and its directional controller can be mounted on either the left or right side.

The IoT-saavy aspects of the chair are intriguing. The Model A can be modified to navigate using sensors for enhanced safety, and its Virtual Rail option allows for following behind a person, animal or vehicle along a predefined path. It is Bluetooth and GPS-friendly, and can be rigged to communicate with other vehicles. An app also allows for instant adjustments to the seat, drive/control settings, as well as a locking mechanism to keep the chair secure when not in use.

Test driving the Model A at a recent Tokyo trade show was easy, and required very little prior instruction. Controls were easy to reach and intuitively manipulated. The chair felt comfortable enough for hours of continuous use.

Most impressive, however, was the machine’s ruggedness. The front wheels’ large size, combined with their omni-directional design and strong 4WD torque enables navigating over bumps, fissures, stones, and loose terrain such as sand and dirt, while maintaining enough maneuverability to avoid larger obstacles. Meanwhile, ramps and other inclined surfaces do not pose problems. Measuring just 23 inches wide and 32 inches in length, the unit feels amazingly compact.

“The big thing to mention is the style,” says Fairfax, Virginia-based NewsWatch Television. “It's cool, it's modern looking, and the seat places users in a forward stance so they're not leaning backwards as if they were on a couch -- a much more active feel than wheelchairs.”

In March, WHILL announced that it had received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance on its new Model M, which features a selection of color options, controller designs and accessories. FDA approval makes the device eligible for prescription as a medical device, and thus insurance coverage to help defray the expected $14,000 cost.

The U.S. alone is home to nearly 7 million wheelchair users; the company has partnered with more than three dozen re-sellers in North America to handle sales.

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WHILL Model A personal mobility device

“The whole concept behind the WHILL has been to change the public perception of physically disadvantaged people who are in need of better mobility. The machine does seem to have an positive emotional impact.” -- Daisuke Otani

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