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  Architecture & Engineering

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May 24, 2000

Students win prize for futuristic wheelchair design


SEATTLE (AP) -- Innovative designs have the power to change the world.

Five students at The Art Institute of Seattle have designed a prize-winning wheelchair with a single, gyroscoping wheel and other changes recommended by wheelchair users themselves.

"The idea is that the wheelchair would become part of the person instead of just transport," said Anna Marietta, 19, one of the student designers. "It would move as the person and complement the person."

For the Art Institute students, the project began as just another classroom lesson. The quintet created a futuristic wheelchair with looks and function light years beyond traditional wheelchairs.

The forward-thinking design earned the group the 1999 Best of Show Award in a national student design competition sponsored by the Austin, Texas-based Association of Professional Model Makers. Competing in the category, "Future Design," their design beat out eight others from around the country.

New wheelchair deign
This design of a forward-thinking wheelchair earned a group of students from the Seattle Art Institue the 1999 Best of Show Award in a national student design competition.
"The imagination involved made this concept stand out," said association president Richard Coleman. "They took a real leap of faith to come up with this design idea."

The idea was born in an ergonomics class called Human Factors, where instructor Paul Rook asked each group of students to design a different kind of chair to improve its fit with users.

The class is part of the industrial design technology program at the Art Institute, a two-year arts-oriented career and technical college.

The group had only four weeks to design a model wheelchair, one-fourth the size of the real thing.

"It was definitely a risk because of the time constriction," said Marietta, who plans a career in sporting goods design. "We could have let that limit us but we kept pushing it and pushing it. All designs are met with skepticism when they first come out, but you have to accept that challenge."

Rook said the tight time-frame was supposed to be an inspiration.

"This kind of design gets people thinking," he said. "The difference between good design and bad design is that great design leaps out of the envelope. Designers can't be timid. Risk is a part of it."

"It's okay to take risks and ask why," said Jared Hamilton, 20, who came up with the wheelchair's concept. "Now I know that the design process can empower you to ask the right questions and get the desired results."

Before beginning the design, student Eric Thompson, 25, went to key sources -- people using wheelchairs -- to ask what improvements and changes they would like to see made.

He learned, for example, that people in wheelchairs rarely are at eye-level with others. Incorporated into the design was a lift mechanism that lets the wheelchair user raise the seat so he or she can reach at eye level, a change that also helps boost self-esteem.

Wheelchair users also complained of stagnation. The model is designed with sufficient flexibility to let the user change positions, avoiding pressure- point sores and stiffness.

In addition, model makers Scott Divers, 42, and Paul Wraa, 25, designed the wheelchair to fit all sizes of people. It also features a one-wheel, hubless design that gyroscopes for easy maneuverability.

"You can't just go to Wheelchairs 'R Us," said Teri Michaud, 40, of Everett, a wheelchair user who was interviewed for design suggestions.

"What impressed me was that the group was willing to take into consideration the disability issue and find out what really mattered to those in wheelchairs."

Normally, wheelchairs cost any where from $2,100 to $3,500. It's hard to say how much a full-scale version of the model wheelchair would cost.

The important lesson learned here, the students said, is designers can push the frontier of innovation.

"Thinking and planning on this level is the reason design has become the future itself," said Vernon Trevellyan, director of industrial design technology at the Art Institute. "Projects done to upgrade the human condition are the highest calling for designers."

"They complemented each other very well," Rook said. "It's a synergistic thing when people come together from a diverse assortment of backgrounds to work on a common project and in doing so, come up with a very successful result."