Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the last few years, at some point or another, you’ve probably seen a social media post or read something about the Whill. It’s a mobility device designed by a team of former auto-industry engineers that aims to change the way people think about wheelchairs by offering a slick and radically different look and a new drive system that allows tight indoor turning and all-terrain outdoor functionality.
As a fan of innovation and someone who knows firsthand how desperate the wheelchair industry is for innovation, I’ve been watching Whill’s evolution since images of an earlier prototype popped up on my Facebook feed. This past summer I visited the company’s nondescript Bay Area headquarters south of San Francisco to see the Whill first hand and find out more about what the company is planning. I’m saving the details for a future feature story, but it’s fair to say I came away intrigued.
The company has been slowly rolling out the Whill in California while refining it and figuring out how to support it, but when I visited in October, they were excited about a wider rollout. One phase of that occurred last month at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Whill drew raves for its looks and its potential impact. The company also showed off one of its newest features – smartphone control. Through an app, users can actually drive the Whill. That may seem like a gimmick at first, and honestly in the chair’s current iteration (see below), it mostly is. But for the many people who are unable to control their own power chairs and rely on attendants, this could be a game changer down the line. The app also gives users control over all the chair’s speed settings, unlike most power chars now where owners must rely on technicians with special programmers.
If you look at the website, or read anything about the Whill, you will notice that the current version, the Whill Model A, is “not considered a medical device.” In addition to lacking arm rests, its seating system isn’t adaptable enough for many users with more needs (like higher quads or people with severe spasticity). But everyone I spoke with made it clear that the Model A is just a starting point. Watching the Model A turn on a dime and then roll through soft gravel, or hearing users talk about how it increased their confidence, it’s hard not to get a little excited about its potential.