We spoke with Drew McPherson and Josephine Koe from UC Berkeley, members of the EnableTech team, who build hardware solutions for people with disabilities at UC Berkeley and around the world. They showcase the products they have developed and the process they went through, from camping-portable assistive standing chairs to Alexa-enabled hospital bed buttons. As open-source projects, you can learn more, use, and contribute to their projects by visiting their site at https://enabletech.berkeley.edu/. Here's a transcript of our conversation:
Drew: We started EnableTech almost four years ago, specifically for bringing students and community members with disabilities together, to try to make like more useful projects because we saw a lot of the design classes, projects being built that weren't necessarily very useful and getting thrown away at the end. And it seemed like why not kind of pair the engineering students with community members that could kind of motivate a project or bring a challenge and then the students could work with them to try to come up with a solution, prototype. That in the end they could then take home and hopefully make at least one task a little bit easier to do. So we kind of built a course curriculum out of that. Teaching skills around a human centered design but also kind of club members that then give space, materials, kind of mentoring so that they can hopefully have successful projects through the semester or ongoing years.
Josephine: For example, this is what we call person elevator and it is for a woman who doesn't have a lot of strength in her legs. So it's hard for her to get up off the ground and she likes to go camping. So we developed a fairly lightweight kind of elevator for her that opens and closes with a pneumatic bag sort of in it that we can pump air into and that'll raise and lower the platform.
Josh: And if I'm not mistaken, this was the first prototype.
Josephine: Yeah. This was the older prototype that we had and this one's made of steel. Whereas this one's made of aluminum. So this one's a lot heavier, and it's kind of just not as advanced as this one. So this would be a lot easier for her to bring on a camping trip, but this one not so much.
Josh: What about this project? What does this do?
Josephine: So this is just a regular hospital bed controller. And some people don't have the dexterity to push the buttons. They can just slide it into this box and then the circuitry will connect to Alexa and they can control it with their voice instead.
Josh: There are plenty of other projects over here. Would you mind telling me a little bit about this one?
Josephine: So this one, it's an old prototype of a prosthetic leg that we developed for our friend Frank and he's an above-the-knee amputee. The current leg that he has, it's hard for him to bike with but he likes to bike. So we developed a new prosthetic leg that has a slightly different axis of rotation that makes it a lot easier for him to bike.
Josh: If I'm not mistaken, this is one of the projects that you've worked on directly.
Josephine: It's a robotic arm that attaches to the side of a wheelchair. So people who can't reach out and grab something they can control the arm with their phone and it'll reach out and grab it for them. So this one is a window opener. So Drew can't like get up and open and close his windows, so this part will just attach to this window and then as you turn this lead screw, it'll slide back and forth. So it'll open and close this windows for him.
Josh: And finally, this is the biggest one on the table. What exactly is this for?
Josephine: So this black piece is just a regular wheelchair cushion, but this top plate has force-sensitive on it. So say someone's paralyzed and they can't feel how much weight they're putting where, they can use this panel to map out the distribution of their weight and then they can redistribute themselves to prevent sores.
Josh: Awesome. That is excellent. So this is a great project. A great series of projects. Is this something that you've been doing for a very long time?
Josephine: Not me. I just finished up my freshman year at UC Berkeley, but a lot of people have worked on these over the years and we just continue with the teams.