From the time of the first Model Ts, automobile makers have developed cars to go faster and burn fuel more efficiently. Televisions progressed from black-and-white to color, and now continue to produce clearer pictures. The record player turned into an eight-track player, then a cassette deck, then a CD player, and then an MP3 player. Even the Internet moves at ever faster speeds.
But what about the wheelchair?
Why do wheelchair basketball players have to roll directly into other players just to get a shot off? Why can’t they stop when they want without letting go of the basketball? Why do their chairs tip over so much? Why can’t something be done?
That’s what Eric Larson was thinking when he and three classmates in a junior-level industrial design class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were given an assignment to develop a major piece of sports equipment. They had just walked a few blocks from the art building to a campus gym to check out a Fighting Illini wheelchair basketball team practice. “We were amazed at how rough they were,” says Larson, the leader of the design team.
Larson doesn’t use a wheelchair. He’s not a person with paralysis. He doesn’t have an amputation or limited mobility. He’s never played wheelchair basketball and didn’t know the difference between Classes I, II and III, the separations for athletes with varying capabilities. He’s never collided with another player and smashed his hands and legs between two rolling pieces of metal, and he had never even thought of being knocked over in a wheelchair…until he saw it.
Larson watched from a corner of the gym as chairs crashed together, metal slammed against metal and skin became the meat of a steel sandwich. Nothing else was needed to convince him that wheelchair design was the opportunity he was looking for.
It’s not as if he set out to be an inventor. He’s just a 22 year-old student from Pecatonica, Illinois, who’s already received a degree in product design and is finishing a second one in metals. He has not even launched his career yet. “That didn’t stop Bill Gates,” says Mike Frogley, coach of the Illinois men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams.
At first, the design team’s goal was just to come up with a better way to market wheelchairs for the sport and a better way to keep them from flipping over. But watching the violent practices changed the project. “People come by the gym to do research on the teams all the time, so it wasn’t anything new,” Frogley says of Larson’s initial visit to practice. “We talked about everything, and I said, ‘Why don’t you take it in a whole new direction. Why don’t you do something that people can look back at five, ten or fifteen years later and say this guy was a visionary.””
Only a visionary would take on the design of an entirely new wheelchair for a class assignment. But that’s what Larson did with his group project.
Larson, Ricky Biddle, Ben Shao and Austin Cliff might revolutionize the sport of wheelchair basketball with their creation, the Balance Sport Wheelchair. The newly designed chair allows wheelchair basketball players to control their movements without using their hands, creating a safer form of maneuvering. “One trend we identified,” Biddle explains, “was the advances in intuitive controls found on personal transportation devices such as on the Segway [a self-balancing personal transportation product in the mainstream market that allows standing riders to lean their weight to control the device].” The Balance Sport Wheelchair uses similar technology in the seat area, Control is as simple as leaning. To turn left, a player leans left. To stop, the player leans back.
The project began in March 2003, and the group created its first tangible example within a month. “We wanted something, no matter how crude, that we could use to test the concept,” Biddle states. And crude it was. The first prototype, Larson says, was made of toothpicks and tape.
William Bullock, an Illinois professor and director of the university’s Product Interaction Research Laboratory, took notice of Larson’s baby. As Larson’s academic advisor, Bullock was already aware of the wheelchair design project. He also sensed its potential. “William Bullock came to us and asked, ‘How’d you like to have twenty grand to finish your project?”” Larson relates.
With some minimal guidance from Bullock, Larson drafted a lengthy proposal. The design team applied to the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance for a grant and received $16,400. At the end of the grant period, the chair will be patented with the help of the university.
When Larson’s group received the financial backing. they created a second prototype. A third was then produced, despite the graduation of three of the designers: Larson worked with fresh help from graduate assistants, a committee of professors and a group of people with disabilities. “After the third prototype. others jumped on board,” Larson says. “Once people could see something, they became very receptive.”
“I was thrilled that they thought of wheelchair basketball players, and I was more than willing to help them.” remarks Jeff Townsend, a senior player for the Illini.
As new models of the chair were finished, Larson and his group brought them to the morning sessions of practice. During breaks or while on the sidelines, players would test the chairs by simulating live game action through dribbling and shooting. “When Eric came in with the prototype chairs, we all listened,” Frogley states. “When he brought in the first chair, the teams hopped in and told him what they liked and didn’t like. Eric listened, went back to work and changed the chair.”
“I’ll tell you this,” Frogley says, “our players can’t wait to try the next prototype. They can’t wait to get into a chair like this and play, because they see the potential.”
Larson says he will consider the project successful if it achieves even one or two of its initial goals. “The goal of this design is to make the game safer for the competitors,” Larson states. “Instead of players’ having to drive in and smash into another chair before shooting. we want to make it possible for them to do the equivalent of a pull-up jump shot. We want them to be able to juke around another player so they can get a better shot.”
From the feedback so far, it appears this goal has been accomplished. “It will totally change the sport, I think,” says Emily Hoskins, a senior for the Illini. “Being able to stop the chair without even touching the wheels will allow players to avoid being hit.”
The second goal. Larson says, is to allow players more use of their hands while holding position or maneuvering down the court.
“We get around by using our hands to move the wheelchair.” Frogley explains, “so players aren’t always able to have two hands on the ball like in able-bodied basketball. This chair takes away from the need to use your hands on the wheels to move.”
Larson’s innovative design even has implications for the class separation within the sport. Class III players have control over all muscle groups. Class II players have control over arm, shoulder and torso muscles. Class I players have control of arm and shoulder muscles only. The Balance Sport Wheelchair, however, has the potential to level the playing field among classes.
“Instead of constantly losing my balance and falling over simply because of a lack of back and abdominal muscles. I’ll be able to just lean back and stop on a dime.” says Hoskins, who as a Class I player has been the primary target for Larson’s chair.
There are still some kinks to iron out, though, before Larson’s chair could be brought to market. For one thing, the chair is rather heavy because of the extensive bicycle disc braking system installed. Also, it will take time to size the chairs to fit different players, something current chairs have already tackled. And then, there are some players who simply like their chairs and the sport the way they are.
“I think the game is more fun with the contact,” says Illinois player Carlee Hoffman. Of the Balance Sport Wheelchair, she says, “It might revolutionize the game, but I think it’s too early to tell.”
Townsend adds, “Right now, because the idea is still in process, I would say that the chairs we are currently using are more suited toward basketball. The only reason I say that, though, is because the prototypes they have brought in do not fit us individually the same way our current ball chairs do.”
But both Hoffman and Townsend agree the chair has potential to leave a lasting mark on the sport.
Some innovations come and go without a trace; others remain. The wheelchair has seen a number of transitory developments through the years, such as the addition of fifth and sixth wheels for better balance and control. Since the time wheelchair basketball became a global sport shortly after World War II, never before has the chair undergone such dramatic technological changes. “The idea here at the university is to promote excellence,” Frogley says. “What Eric and this invention will do is cause people to think outside the box. One idea can do that, and it’s the people who come up with those ideas who change the world.”
With luck, people will stop and pay attention.
“The easiest thing for people to do is dispel this idea, to say it won’t work,” Frogley warns. “The hardest thing for them to do is open their minds and see a vision.”
By Josh Pate
Dr. Timothy J. Nugent, you’ve got some company.
The University of Illinois has become a breeding ground for visionaries in the area of athletics for people with disabilities. The institution has historically provided unparalleled opportunities for student competitors with disabilities, And Nugent was the man who lit the torch.
It was 1948 when Nugent, then a professor at the University of Illinois at Galesburg, initiated the first support service program for students with disabilities. Wheelchair sports were in their infant stages as injured World War II veterans developed their own pastime. The interest spread, and Nugent was a supporter. The university offered an array of athletic programs to students, including archery, bowling, cheerleading. football, swimming, table tennis and square dancing. At Nugent’s urging, it added wheelchair basketball. “He had an idea about what people with disabilities can do,” says Mike Frogley, coach of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams..
Known as the University of Illinois Gizz Kids, the first collegiate wheelchair basketball team endured strenuous workouts and preparation to play teams of able-bodied athletes who used wheelchairs during exhibition games. The hard work paid off, and the Gizz Kids became frequent finalists in the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. By 1977, Illinois began awarding varsity letters to athletes with disabilities. Through its advancement of wheelchair basketball, wheelchair track and field and other wheelchair sports, the university became host to creations like the Illinois Wheel, a specially designed tire to improve traction, as well as a lighter wheelchair used by athletes in several sports. Currently the University of Illinois sets the standard for universities nationwide regarding adapted athletics. Nugent opened his eyes to athletes with disabilities and opened the door for growth. Wheelchair basketball competitions now embrace armies of teams. Symbolic of their incorporation into typical university athletic life. the Gizz Kids ultimately changed their team’s name to the Fighting Illini to match the university’s official athletic name.
If Nugent is king of adapted athletics, design student Eric Larson is prince. Larson and a trio of classmates have created a state-of-the-art wheelchair for basketball and other sports. Called the Balance Sport Wheelchair. the new invention gives athletes hands-free braking and spontaneous movement abilities. The 22-year-old Illinois student is working to patent the invention and improve upon the four prototypes he and his associates have already created. “There is tremendous parallel between Eric’s invention and the vision of this university,” Frogley says.
“Since I’ve come to know the sport and understand more about athletes with disabilities. I have become passionate about it,” states Larson. “We’re using wheelchair basketball as a breeding ground. I think the Balance Sport Wheelchair has the potential to work in sports like tennis, quad rugby and others.”
That’s how Nugent started. He focused on a small area but never let the big picture out of his sights. “Fifty years ago. Dr. Nugent saw the potential for people with disabilities and took it in the right direction.” Frogley says. “Eric is doing the same thing.” ABILITY
by Josh Pate