Researchers at Essex University have developed a new system that would allow people suffering from severe physical disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries or quadriplegia, to control an electric wheelchair or mobile scooter.

Lai Wei and Huosheng Hu from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at Essex University developed a system for the hands-free control of electric powered wheelchairs using an inexpensive webcam and a sensing headband. Their prototype system uses pattern recognition and the analysis of electromyographic signals from the user's forehead and visual signals to identify which of five winking and jaw-clenching movements the user is making. The combination of a left and right wink, with and without a jaw clench , and a jaw clench alone is mapped to six control commands for the wheelchair.

In tests with users on an indoor obstacle circuit, the researchers determined that all users were able to control a wheeled robot simulator. They then demonstrated that they could also control a wheelchair well enough to navigate the obstacle course and also were able to follow a specific route.

The researchers did point out that individual wheelchair users would have different needs, but that the software could be adapted to suit particular facial and muscular characteristics. In the future, the researchers will attempt to examine whether the same technology might allow additional facial expressions and movements to control other devices as well.

This technology is a big step in helping those with severe disabilities be able to be more mobile by helping users regain some of their independence.

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