Smart Wheelchair Contributes to Patients’ Quality of Life

In a co-innovation project, SAP equips wheelchairs with sensors to provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between sitting posture and detrimental discomforts.

The long-term effects of sitting in a wheelchair can be life threatening — users can get pressure ulcers and spine and muscle deformities, feel pain, or are simply exhausted after up to 14 hours of sitting. Bad posture is a major challenge, because often the wheelchair-bound are not able to control or change their sitting position on their own. With approximately 132 million people in wheelchairs, this is a big problem in terms of individual’s pain and high costs for healthcare systems.

In the smart wheelchair project, SAP has co-innovated with Dutch wheelchair manufacturer Life & Mobility — ergo therapists, the scientific field, and users — to equip four wheelchairs with 11 sensors each. These sensors transmit information every four seconds on pressure distribution, temperature, and the user’s sitting posture. This data can be sent to SAP Cloud Platform via Wi-Fi for further analysis using SAP Leonardo Analytics and advanced algorithms.

Realistic Big Data

“The smart wheelchair offers us the Big Data we need to gain deeper insight into the sitting behavior of wheelchair users, and how to adapt this conduct to create more autonomy,” says movement scientist Hanneke Knibbe from LOCOmotion, a researcher involved in the project. “Not much research has been performed on long-term sitting and its effects on the health of wheelchair users. Any available data usually comes from laboratory environments, and not from the field.

Knibbe believes that the smart wheelchair project can lead to a breakthrough: “We now have at our disposal large quantities of realistic data, derived from daily practice. This detailed information is necessary to establish links between sitting behavior and the human body’s response to this. You can use this information to further optimize wheelchairs, providing more comfort and ultimately a better quality of life.”

Improved Sitting Posture

Sensire Den Ooiman in Doetinchem, Netherlands, is one of the nursing homes cooperating in this research project. This home is temporarily using smart wheelchairs.

“In my everyday professional practice, I see a clear relationship between a good sitting posture and the prevention of long-term negative effects of sitting in a wheelchair,” explains Adinda van Sommeren, ergo therapist at Sensire healthcare organization. “The smart wheelchair provides more insight into how the wheelchair user positions his or her body. This will give us more clarity on the requirements for well-supported sitting.”

“We are always seeking ways to improve the quality of life for wheelchair users,” adds Harmen Leskens, manager of Product Management and Development at Life & Mobility. “This can be realized with better wheelchairs, but also with advising the patient and nursing staff on changing sitting positions throughout the day. By improving this posture, we prevent the adverse effects of wheelchair use, and the patient has more energy to socially participate.”

“Smart wheelchair is a fine example of how you can positively contribute to society using the Internet of Things and Big Data,” says Jan Willem Dijkstra, program manager at SAP the Netherlands who devised this concept. “SAP has the technological know-how and Life & Mobility knows all about sitting properly. Together, we can find a solution for issues that are inherent in long-term wheelchair use.”

Three Questions for SAP Program Manager Jan Willem Dijkstra

Q: How did you decide to work on the smart wheelchair solution?
A: The idea for the smart wheelchair solution emerged from combining a number of storylines. My wife is a nurse and I heard from her about the negative effects of a wrong sitting position, the long-term process of treating pressure ulcers (decubitus), the impact of this on the well-being of patients, and the fact that each pressure ulcer is in principle preventable. From my colleagues I heard about the new features and  functions of SAP Leonardo. And one of my friends from the village where I live was the owner of a wheelchair factory and he told me about their innovative ambitions, but little progress was made on measuring posture. I combined those stories and during a design thinking session we started working on a low fidelity prototype of a smart wheelchair.

What has been the biggest challenge you encountered on that project?
One of the biggest challenges is to keep pace in the innovation process. You run into all sorts of questions that cannot always be answered during a discovery phase, e.g., from a license perspective, who the customer is, who the contract parties are, who to fund what. Note that at the moment, there is no one in the world collecting real-time sitting position data from wheelchair users. New services can be developed for this based on currently non-existing business models.

Do you envision further use cases for this technology in the future?
We have now laid the foundation in a prototype and are doing research in the field. Based on the outcome, we will further refine the prototype and continue both to develop commercial applications as well as continue to collect data. With large datasets we can do analyses to further study sitting posture and the effect on the well-being of users. Moreover, Big Data will provide input for new research in other directions, for example, the prevention of inactivity in the elderly, another socially relevant topic!