Professor Jason Wiese of the Kahlert School of Computing

Kahlert School of Computing Assistant Professor Jason Wiese is a recipient of the 2022 Google Research Award for Inclusion Research aimed at developing personal tracking technology that addresses a major challenge faced by power wheelchair users: avoiding pressure ulcers. The research supported by the US $60K grant from Google will address the challenges they uncovered in their previous work in which they conducted interviews with users of powered wheelchairs to understand their experiences in adhering to the clinical recommendations and performing pressure reliefs throughout their days. 

Personal tracking technologies, such as the activity trackers found on many phones and smartwatches, diet tracking applications, symptom trackers, and personal finance tools, have become commonplace. People use these technologies to gain better self-insight and make or sustain changes that improve their lives. Early versions of these tools typically focused on activities such as counting steps, which excluded people who use a wheelchair. 

Over time, these tools have become more inclusive, for example, by adding the ability to track wheelchairs propelled manually by their users. However, as Professor Wiese’s recent work has shown, users of powered wheelchairs remain excluded from such personal tracking technologies and from research in general. To address this disparity, Prof. Wiese and his Ph.D. student Tamanna Motahar are collaborating with the Nielsen Rehabilitation Hospital to design and implement personal tracking technology with the goal of exploring better ways to serve users of powered wheelchairs.  Professor Wiese explains: “Our goal is to make sure we design technology to specifically serve people who use powered wheelchairs, rather than assume that their needs are addressed by solutions that work for those who use manual wheelchairs or those without disabilities.” The research will leverage the incredible potential for technology designed with and for those who use powered wheelchairs and create a positive impact on their lives. 

One major application for such technology relates to pressure ulcers, a common issue faced by individuals who use wheelchairs of all sorts. The mechanism behind a pressure ulcer is similar to bed sores, which can occur if someone lays in a bed for too long without getting out or changing position. In the context of wheelchairs, pressure ulcers can occur if somebody sits in their wheelchair for too long without changing position, shifting weight, or getting out. While users of manual wheelchairs and people with sufficient upper-body strength can do stretches or shift their weight to relieve pressure, it’s more complicated for people who have less upper body strength or function. In these cases, a “pressure relief” often requires tilting the chair back to a 45-degree angle for two minutes so that weight is shifted onto the person’s back. 

Current clinical guidelines suggest that the procedure be performed every twenty minutes while a person is in the wheelchair, resulting in an estimated 30-50 pressure reliefs per day. Yet, people in wheelchairs may intentionally skip a pressure relief if it is infeasible or socially awkward to perform it in a given situation, such as being in a crowded place, traveling in a vehicle, participating in a meeting, etc. Often, they miss a pressure relief because they simply forget.

Wiese and Motahar will tackle this problem by exploring solutions for detecting pressure reliefs as well as providing users of power wheelchairs with real-time context-aware reminders and feedback. Their goal is to enable these individuals to view and reflect on their own behavior and its effect on their health and wellbeing.