37C3: The Tech Behind Life With Quadraplegia

While out swimming in the ocean on vacation, a big wave caught [QuadWorker], pushed him head first into the sand, and left him paralyzed from the neck down. This talk isn’t about injury or recovery, though. It’s about the day-to-day tech that makes him able to continue living, working, and travelling, although in new ways. And it’s a fantastic first-hand insight into how assistive technology works for him.

If you can only move your head, how do you control a computer? Surprisingly well! A white dot on [QuadWorker]’s forehead is tracked by a commodity webcam and some software, while two button bumpers to the left and right of his head let him click with a second gesture. For cell phones, a time-dependent scanner app allows him to zero in successively on the X and Y coordinates of where he’d like to press. And naturally voice recognition software is a lifesaver. In the talk, he live-demos sending a coworker a text message, and it’s almost as fast as I could go. Shared whiteboards allow him to work from home most of the time, and a power wheelchair and adapted car let him get into the office as well.

The lack of day-to-day independence is the hardest for him, and he says that they things he misses most are being able to go to the bathroom, and also to scratch himself when he gets itchy – and these are yet unsolved problems. But other custom home hardware also plays an important part in [QuadWorker]’s setup. For instance, all manner of home automation allows him to control the lights, the heat, and the music in his home. Voice-activated light switches are fantastic when you can’t use your arms.

This is a must-watch talk if you’re interested in assistive tech, because it comes direct from the horse’s mouth – a person who has tried a lot, and knows not only what works and what doesn’t, but also what’s valuable. It’s no surprise that the people whose lives most benefit from assistive tech would also be most interested in it, and have their hacker spirit awakened. We’re reminded a bit of the Eyedrivomatic, which won the 2015 Hackaday Prize and was one of the most outstanding projects both from and for the quadriplegic community.

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How A Quadriplegic Patient Was Able To Eat By Himself Again Using Artificial Limbs

Thirty years ago, [Robert “Buz” Chmielewski] suffered a surfing accident as a teenager. This left him as a quadriplegic due to a C6 spinal cord injury. After becoming a participant in a brain-computer interface study at Johns Hopkins, he was recently able to feed himself through the use of prosthetic arms. The most remarkable thing about these prosthetic arms is primarily the neural link with [Buz’s] brain, which allows him to not only control the artificial arms, but also feel what they are touching, due to a closed-loop system which transfers limb sensory input to the patient’s brain.

The prosthetic limb in question is the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL) from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The Johns Hopkins Medicine Brain-Computer Interface study began a year ago, when [Buz] had six microelectrode arrays (MEA) implanted into his brain: half in the motor cortex and half in the sensory cortex. During the following months, the study focused on using the signals from the first set of arrays to control actuators, such as the MPL. The second set of arrays was used to study how the sensory cortex had to be stimulated to allow a patient to feel the artificial limb much as one feels a biological limb.

What makes this study so interesting is not only the closed-loop approach which provides the patient with feedback on the position and pressure on the prosthetic, but also that it involves both hemispheres of the brain. As a result, after only a year of the study, [Buz] was able to use two of the MPLs simultaneously to feed himself, which is a delicate and complicated tasks.

In the video embedded after the break one can see a comparison of [Buz] at the beginning of the study and today, as he manages to handle cutlery and eat cake, without assistance.

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Karting Hands-Free

Some of us have computer mice with more buttons than we have fingers, resolution tracking finer than a naked eye can discern, and forced-air vents. All these features presuppose one thing; the user has a functioning hand. [Federico Runco] knows that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, will rob a person of their ability to use standard computer inputs, or the joystick on a motorized wheelchair. He is building EyesDrive for the 2020 Hackaday Prize, to restore that mobility to ALS patients. There are already some solutions, but this one focuses on a short bill of materials.

Existing systems are expensive and often track pupil location, which returns precise data, but EyesDrive only discerns, left, right, and resting. For these, we need three non-invasive electrodes, a custom circuit board with amplifiers, signal processing circuits, and a microcontroller. He includes a Bluetooth socket on the custom PCBs, which is the primary communication method. In the video below he steers a virtual kart around a knotty course to prove that his system is up to the task of an urban wheelchair.

EyesDrive by [Federico Runco] should not be confused with the HackadayPrize2015 winner, Eyedrivomatic, lead by two remarkable hackers, Steve Evans and Patrick Joyce.

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