Aiming for confidence, comfort and independence, the Japanese designers of a sleek, minimalistic, wirelessly-connected 4WD wheelchair have relocated to the Bay Area to launch Whill. NotImpossibleNow caught up with a mechanical engineer from the company at the International CES in Las Vegas.

Tien Cheh: We're a startup out of Tokyo, Japan, now in San Carlos, California. We're trying to build next generation wheelchairs. The start of the company was because our CEO and founder Satoshi Sugi decided to change the face of perceptions about disability and mobility issues.


Their negative stigmas are very pronounced in Asian and eastern cultures, much more so than western cultures. He has a personal tie where his friend is a spinal cord injury patient. He came together with all of his friends from high school, who had become very successful engineers at bigger corporations like Sony, Nissan and Olympus, and they decided to start this company together after quitting their jobs.

They're really trying to push design innovation in the medical device industry, which you don't see too much of nowadays. We're trying to work together with like-minded companies to really make a difference.

What's the biggest difference between Whill and the most progressive chairs on the market?

The most progressive chairs are still just basically a shell of a big seat attached to two wheels and two motors and some batteries and they slap on some plastic and call it a wheelchair and call it aesthetically pleasing. Ours is a much more compact integrated model. The design flows seamlessly together so it looks like one solid piece, not a huge contraption.

Its small footprint means you don't have to redesign your home per ADA standards and then not be able to drive it down the street to commercial businesses that aren't within those compliance standards. You've got a lot of freedom, and it's four-wheel drive versus two-wheel drive which is typical of current powered wheelchairs. You have a lot more safety and a lot more mobility in terms of off-road terrain coverage, in terms of wet conditions, in terms of going uphill.


These motors are quite strong, I field tested them myself in the foothills around the Bay Area and around San Francisco. It performs quite admirably. It has a very tight turning radius because of our unique front wheels, while maintaining four-wheel drive, I can have a 44" turning diameter due to our unique omnidirectional wheels that have rollers along their circumference.

I can also power my device and drive it remotely via iPhone through an app in the store, which is free of course.

Tell me again about the benefit of being able to drive it by iPhone, not just for the person but for his or her extended family and caretakers?

Absolutely. From our understanding, so far, it's twofold. If you're a caretaker, instead of conventionally pushing the chair from behind, which is a very strong, well-understood social image about disability and having mobility issues, you can walk side by side and drive this via iPhone. It makes for much more natural dialogue, you're not talking to the back of their head, it's much more equal, it's a much more natural conversation.

We've become very good at driving this without needing to look at our iPhone so it looks even more natural. The other plus side is, if you're an able-bodied individual, at least upper-body wise, you can park this off to the side if you're transferring into your bed or getting up in the morning, and you can pull it over to you or load it to your car via ramp all on your own without a caregiver or anyone else's help.

Why, is it lighter?

It's heavy but it's lighter than almost all other competing electric wheelchairs. They typically range between 300 to 400 pounds. Our is 280. Understandably, that's still heavy but it's significantly better.

And in terms of battery life and range?

It's competitive. The average person, we think, for a very active day, walks around 10 miles. One full charge gives you between 10 to 12 miles of battery life. We're considering moving over to lithium ion but there are arbitrary airline regulations for transporting within the continental US and they don't like lithium ion batteries for whatever reason.

But our current lead acid batteries will charge really fast. You'll get about eight to ten miles within an hour.

Does the app also kind of give you a range estimate of how far you've got to go before you run out of juice?

Absolutely. We have a battery indicator of five LED [light]s. Each LED roughly corresponds to two miles left of coverage.


What happens if you run out of juice? Does it just stops like other electric wheelchairs or is there a way to manually operate it?

There's a way to manually operate it. There are brakes on our electric motors that you can disengage and then you can have someone push you. Understandably, it's very inconvenient because, most of the time, the user will have to have someone come and help them. On our Bluetooth app we're going to have a function that's going to be very similar to Onstar in your vehicle.

If there's a distress situation, you'll be able to notify an emergency contact, 911, and have someone come and help you immediately.

If you had unlimited resources and unlimited personnel, what one of the world's problems would you try to solve or cure?

There's just so much to do. I'm just so happy that so many people are trying to make a difference. I'm very fortunate to be able to have my freedom of movement and freedom of lifestyle. I would really work on the medical device industry to try and bring some more innovation to try and change social stigma, social perceptions. for anyone that's at a disadvantage. Any minorities in the world, their voices need to be heard. 

For more about Whill, watch the following video: