By Erika Rawes, Digital Trends
As a technology that’s been around for decades, powered wheelchairs aren’t exactly a hotbed of innovation. Aside from some basic improvements in power and battery life, they’ve largely remained the same for the past few years.
But that’s not to say nobody’s pushing the envelope in this space. A couple years ago at at CES, Digital Trends got an early look at LUCI, an innovative startup that’s aiming to give all the world’s wheelchairs a technological upgrade, retrofitting them with aftermarket abilities like obstacle avoidance, drop-off detection, 360-degree sensor vision, and smart assistant integrations. In 2021, the company had just barely launched and was still getting off the ground, but here in 2022, it’s really starting to make waves — so we caught up with founders Barry and Jered Dean to hear about the company’s journey so far — and also what’s coming next.
Digital Trends: What inspired you to rethink the way wheelchairs work?
Barry: It comes from my daughter, Katherine, our family, and our lived experience, frankly. I’m not in a chair, nor is Jered, but my daughter, Katherine, is, and we had a friend of the family who was injured in a wheelchair accident. We wanted to find the technologies and protection to help her have more independence. And as she got older (she’s 21 now), we found it didn’t exist. We’ve found that frustrating, and so we began working to try to solve that problem.
A lot of people don’t realize that these power wheelchairs cost about as much as a car, and the only safety feature on them is a seat belt. The disability community has been left behind by technology, and it’s sort of this forgotten world. At LUCI, we’ve been working really hard to bring technology to this world, to these users, to our family.
What surprised you the most when researching wheelchair owner data?
Barry: The things that probably surprise people the most are the cost of the wheelchair and the weight, which we knew from our lived experience. Also, finding out that twice as many people are getting hurt and going to the ER in wheelchair accidents as they are in motorcycle accidents. There are a lot of wheelchair accidents out there, but everyone sort of assumes it’s just them or they may even think, “it’s my fault.” We had those same thoughts until we started understanding that it wasn’t just a family problem, but rather an industry problem — a safety issue for anyone who’s using a motorized mobile device.
We wanted to demonstrate safety issues in a scientific way. We worked with a crash test facility that does automotive and aerospace. After the first test ran, the facility engineers started realizing the problem and they called an expert, who said the forces we’re seeing when a person runs into a wall (at full speed on a chair) exceed what’s allowed in cars by the federal government. The person is the bumper in a wheelchair if you think about it.
Let’s talk features. What makes LUCI different from other mobility devices?
Jered: So basically, a user can add LUCI to an existing power wheelchair, and it turns a dumb wheelchair into a smart wheelchair.
We do collision avoidance and drop-off protection, and connectivity to the outside world. Collision avoidance and drop-off protection really are enhanced mobility. They help people navigate safely, and more independently. LUCI allows users to connect to health trackers, Alexa, Google Assistant, and allows them to communicate and share information with their teams. It comes with a mobile application, which can let users take advantage of features and upgrades like LUCI View, which is something that we just launched in April. It allows users to see a 360-degree view of what LUCI sees around the chair.
Our users are of all abilities. Some can move freely with traditional joysticks, some use alternative drive controls, some even drive with their eyes, so LUCI View can be critically helpful, letting users see what’s behind them and all the way around them, just like on any modern car.
Barry: In the smart tech world, we’re used to over-the-air updates and a platform approach to technology, adding features that we don’t necessarily have to pay for a new device to get. That’s not something that’s come to this industry in this way. When you think about it, a power wheelchair is probably one of the largest expenditures someone is spending on, yet it’s not connected to the things we want it connected to? We wanted to change that.
We’re also introducing new technology for seating that is game-changing. As an example, some people use air cushions — 25% or 30% use an air cushion to help mitigate pressure injury. But if that air cushion is not inflated properly, it works against you. So, we have a monitor called LUCI Air that helps keep track of this. It sends alerts or texts if it detects a problem and tracks the data over time.
There’s also a new technology that we’re working on — just now in beta, so it’s not out yet. It helps people using ramp vans (which are the narrowest ramps) using tagging and robotics technology.
We’re constantly looking for the pain points, and we listen to our customers and ask ourselves “what are the things that people are asking for, and how do we get those to them as soon as possible?” We initiated the platform, and now we’re able to start addressing those directly.
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