Project Xavier: UCF nonprofit creates hands-free wheelchair

For those who can’t walk, there are wheelchairs, but when someone can’t even use their hands to control that chair, a UCF nonprofit has the solution: Use your face.

It’s called Project Xavier, and it’s essentially an add-on for a wheelchair that allows the operator to move the chair with the small muscles in their face next to their eyes.

"It's like biting your jaw muscles,” said developer John Sparkman, donning a small set of censors on his face and sitting in an outfitted chair. 

“So if I do left, I can make it go left. The microcontroller processes what my muscles are doing and I'm able to drive the wheelchair," he said.

The project is being developed in a small lab near the University of Central Florida’s arena called Limbitless Solutions. 

The nonprofit organization is a joint effort by the university founded by a group of graduates, including Sparkman and Limbitless President Albert Manero.

The group has become well known for its creation of custom, bionic prosthetic limbs for children.

"We're still at the point where we can donate every single device,” Manero said, “and that's really the heart of our program, that no one should be financially burdened by needing one of these type of devices."

Project Xavier was created by the group as an effort to help ALS patients and others who find themselves at a loss of independence because they can’t even move their hand to operate the controls on a wheelchair.

Sparkman said as the muscular system degrades in ALS patients, eventually leading to death, they’re often left with few options to stay mobile. He believes their system could change that for many.

"Depending on their neuromuscular disorder, some of the last features to go are the facial muscles,” Sparkman said.

So, Xavier adds a small attachment onto the control panel of the chair that connects to the censors on the face. Those small muscular movements then activate the mechanism and move the joystick for the user. 

Sparkman said they hope to eventually place the censors in an easy to put on sort-of headband and possibly even use Bluetooth technology to remove the wires connecting the components.

The project is currently in clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville location.

Neurologist and ALS doctor Bjorn Oskarsson is working on the trials and said via Skype Monday that the technology is promising. 

He said it won’t necessarily be a solution for every patient, but for those able to use it, he said it could be a major boost to their treatment.

"ALS is a disease that steals functions from people one function at a time,” Dr. Oskarsson said. “The longer you're able to maintain independence in some functions, say mobility for example, that is hugely important for one's well-being."

Right now, the project has more clinical trials and refinement ahead, but the team at Limbitless hope they’ll be able to start providing it to patients soon, giving those folks a chance at independence.

"Fast forward with Project Xavier, they may be the individual greeting people at the store, being back at work, or even giving the school tours here at UCF,” Manero said.

Like much of the technology at Limbitless, Project Xavier is inspired by the superheroes of comic book and movie fame. 

In this case, Xavier is a reference to the founder of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier, who is also wheelchair-bound and uses telepathic powers.