Human bodies come in all shapes and sizes, especially where disability is involved. But for the most part, wheelchairs are a one-size-fits-all affair. It's absurd, says British designer Benjamin Hubert, founder of the experience-driven industrial design agency Layer. Shouldn't the wheelchair a person spends their entire waking day in be at least as tailored to their body as the pants, the shirt, or the shoes they wear?
So Layer designed a wheelchair that is. It's called the Go: a partially 3-D printed wheelchair that is custom-fit to its owner's unique proportions. It not only looks cool, it uses some smart design tricks—like one plucked from rugby players—to make pushing yourself around in a wheelchair a little easier.
An Archaic Industry
Layer was once a more traditional industrial design studio—an incarnation that Hubert found a little hollow. The studio refocused itself on using design to solve real issues, and to raise important questions about industries that deserve scrutiny. That was how the design team came to the idea of redesigning the wheelchair, the product of an "archaic" industry which traditionally treats the wide spectrum of disability with a one-size-fits-all approach.
The Go was the result of a two-year research process, in which Layer spoke to dozens of wheelchair users about what they wanted from their chairs. In general, the complaints people had about their wheelchairs was that it didn't feel like their wheelchair. Sometimes it was because their wheelchair didn't really "fit," causing them to move around in the seat too much, or that a poor fit meant they didn't feel secure. But just as much of the conversation was stylistic. "One of the insights that came out of our research was that a lot of people wanted something they could use during the day, but they would also look cool in lined up at the club," Hubert says.
So unlike traditional wheelchairs, the Go doesn't look like a typical medical device, all steel frames and square angles. Instead, it's decidedly minimalist: little more than a black webbed bucket seat attached to a couple of light-weight wheels. This gives the Go a space-age, organic look. "We wanted the form of the Go to feel more sinuous and anthropomorphic, with a splaying design language and soft, flowing shapes next to the body," Hubert says. "We were chasing this idea that a wheelchair should be an extension of the form and format of the human body, without becoming a cartoon."
An Ergonomic Challenge
Another consideration when designing the Go was safety. The human body isn't designed to push itself around with its arms and shoulders all day, so injuries in wheelchair users area common occurrence, including rotator cuff injuries, repetitive strains, arthritis, torn muscles, and more. "It was horrific hearing the ways in which wheelchair users routinely hurt themselves," Hubert says. "Until robotics progress enough to we can wire people's wheelchairs directly into their nervous system, though, wheelchair users are going to have to keep pushing themselves. So we thought about ways we could incrementally improve the experience and make it easier."
The solution Layer came up with was plucked from the design playbook of professional athletes. The Go's wheels comes with super tactile push rims, covered in hundreds of tiny silicone grip patterns. These patterns are designed to key into similar patterns printed on a pair of gloves which ships with the Go (which is in itself unique: most wheelchairs don't come with their own gloves). These gloves make it easier for users to actually grip onto their wheels, not unlike the gloves football and rugby players wear to improve their ability to catch a slippery ball. The result is that the Go delivers a greater power-to-push ratio than other wheelchairs, reducing the risk of injury.
To custom fit each Go to its user, Layer has teamed up with Materialise, a 3-D printing and scanning company. After visiting one of dozens of Materialise facilities, a customer would be "scanned in," mapping the contours of their body and then adjusting the dimensions of the Go's seat and footrests accordingly. Two weeks later, a new Go wheelchair comes down the assembly line, custom-fit to that specific customer's needs and proportions.
Because of the nature of Go's design, only the seat and footrest need to be 3-D printed, but there are other options that users can specify when they order their Go: for example, whether or not their wheelchair comes with push bars on the back of the seat. "It turns out not everyone wants them," Hubert says. "People see push bars, and they think that person needs pushing. But we talked to a lot of people who were frustrated that strangers kept on trying to push them around like toys." Lift bars, which help a wheelchair user transfer himself into the chair, are another option, and down the line, Hubert hopes that the Go's seat patterns can also be modified.
When the Go wheelchair goes on sale, Hubert believes it will cost between $4,500 and $7,000, which places it in the high-performance end of the market. But unfortunately, there's no telling when that will be. Getting a new wheelchair design into doctor's offices and hospitals is a complicated process, says Hubert, so while the design and technology is all ready to go, the Go doesn't yet have a route-to-market. That's why Layer is trying to raise awareness of the design now, and hopefully attract backers.
Even if the Go doesn't ever go on sale, Layer hopes it will help shift the industry as as a concept. "Ultimately, we're a design studio which aims to raise important questions about product categories that need scrutiny," says Hubert. That's a description which fits the wheelchair category to a T. With Go, not only will users get a better deal when it comes to ergonomics and usability—they'll look cool while doing it.