by Ian Ruder and Tim Gilmer, with Bob Vogel
Minimalist. Attractive. Design forward. Pretty.
Those aren’t words usually associated with power wheelchairs, but they keep popping up in conversation after conversation about the WHILL, a new “personal mobility device” designed and brought to market by a team of former auto industry designers. After five years of design and testing, a good degree of Internet fame and a successful funding campaign that resulted in $11 million, the WHILL — pronounced like “will power,” not “wheel” — is finally available to a nationwide market.
See Bob Vogel’s test results:
With a low-profile frame highlighted by two white arms emerging from just in front of the rear wheels, the WHILL resembles a wheelchair that was ripped off the set of a futuristic sci-fi movie more than it does any power chair currently on the market. It is sleek. It is eye-catching. As one user told me, “It’s like the Apple of wheelchairs.”
The current version, the Model A, does not have all the features that wheelchair users with higher level spinal cord injuries would need and is not intended for medical use (meaning it’s not yet covered by insurance), but has more than a new style to excite potential users about future versions. Atop the list is an all-directional four-wheel drive system built around novel casters that allow for pin-point turning and all-terrain use. Also of note is an app that allows users to control the chair via smart phone. It could be great for caregivers of users who can’t control the chair on their own, or users who simply want to move the WHILL to a corner or summon it to bedside.
Still, you need look no further than the iBot to remember that it takes more than promise and potential to make it in the fickle world of wheelchairs. Whether the WHILL is truly the white knight that changes the industry or just a passing whim will depend on more than its looks or tech. Among the many questions out there are: how service works (the company currently promises to fly technicians out to repair chairs where owners live, but knows that is not sustainable long-term); whether the business-side of WHILL is viable; and how and if they will adapt the chair for users with complex rehab needs.
Questions aside, it is easy to see why the WHILL often provokes giddy reactions and reposts on Facebook and other social media. “This is an opportunity to see something challenge the power chair industry,” says Fernanda Castelo, a C5-6 incomplete quad who has been testing the chair for WHILL for the last two years. “I’m going on 20 years in a chair and I have not seen any different designs. People come up to me and want to talk to me about it. They’re excited about it, and that excites me.”
What Users Are Saying
Whitley Hodges, injured in 2009 at T7, is 26 and lives in Elgin, Ill. She has gone to the Abilities Expo in Chicago every year since her SCI. As a young wheeler, she likes to show some style with her choice of manual wheelchair. That’s why she currently rides a Colours Saber. But at the Expo in June of 2015, she tried out a new WHILL power chair, drawn by its futuristic design.
“I’ve never seen a power wheelchair as compact as the WHILL. It’s very sleek and modern,” says Hodges. “Definitely appeals to me, especially the compactness. The footplate didn’t stick out as far, and it’s shorter in the back. The arm rests are a sleeker design, more aerodynamic, and a lot narrower. Even the joystick is sleeker, more like a rounded square.”
What about practicality? “I’ve never ridden another power chair, but I have ridden power scooters,” she says. “With the WHILL I feel like you have more control with the wheels, how it turns on a dime. And it’s a lot smoother accelerating and stopping.” And rough terrain? “I didn’t get a chance to take it outside. It was a smooth ride on carpet, felt like I was gliding. Definitely smoother than wheeling in a manual chair.”
She would tweak a few things if she had one. “One of the things I would change is the cushion. I think my ROHO would fit in the WHILL. Right now it’s a firm foam on the WHILL, removable. Not the same skin protection as a ROHO. Even with the hard cushion, it felt OK, surprisingly. The seat was more bucketed, comfortable. But the seat was too long, touching the back of my knees.”
She says if she were seriously in the market to switch to power, the WHILL would definitely be in the running. But there’s a catch. “I don’t have an accessible vehicle with a lift,” she says. “Right now I disassemble my manual chair. Other than that the WHILL is a great chair. I drive a 2008 Nissan Rogue, a smaller SUV. I would need a vehicle with a ramp or a lift.” Hodges is currently looking for employment and lives with her mother, who rents the main floor of a house, so money is hard to come by.
For now, at $10,000 retail, the WHILL must wait.
“It would be something I would definitely save for,” she says. “Especially if they work on the design and move forward with new models.”
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Reveca Torres, 33, a C6 quad since 1994, was also at the Chicago Expo. NEW MOBILITY readers know her as the founder of Backbones, a national peer support organization. She has owned power chairs since 1999. She liked her Invacare Arrow Storm (she had two) and now has a Quantum 4000. But she wants something “not so big and clunky,” and says she is disappointed at the options for power chairs in general these days. “There are a lot of cool types of manual chairs, but not a lot of options for power chairs.”
What does she think of the WHILL? “I was very impressed, actually, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I felt very stable in it. I’m an incomplete quad and have some pretty good control with my trunk. I do have weakness, but know my limits.” She was secured with a safety belt across her hips. “It feels like it has a little more suspension. I didn’t feel the bumps as much on my back.” She had no problem going up a ramp into a van and also into an MV-1.
What did she like most? “Visually I like that it fits my body better and is comfortable, and you can see more of me and there is less chair. Also the drive control works like a mouse and I picked that up quickly. I tried turning in small spaces. No problem at all.” And the sleek design? “It felt like it allowed more room to move, and the same with the back rest, smaller, and no handles, so I had more movement with my upper body.”
Lifestyle considerations? Torres likes the turning radius and 23-inch width for going through doorways and sees no problem with transferring to and from the WHILL. But she’d like a little less dump to sit more upright and wonders if the arm design would be good for driving. “I use the arm rest to lean into. I would need to move the WHILL arm rest because it would interfere with the hand-control accelerator. I use my present arm rest (on my Quantum) for stability when going into a turn.“ She also wonders about flying. “I’m curious about how you would transport it on airlines. It might be a little more fragile.”
At the Expo, the WHILL had a one-time 50 percent off sale price of $5,000. Torres was tempted at that price but would have to have cash. “The lack of FDA approval is a definite barrier,” she says. Even if it was approved, insurance companies might give people a hard time about getting it covered.”
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At 62, Paul Knott, a complete C6 quad for 30 years, comes from a different demographic than Hodges or Torres. He lives with his wife, Linda, in Village Homes, a wheeler’s paradise in Davis, Calif. So when Bob Vogel, our pre-eminent wheelchair tester, proposed a dual WHILL tryout for himself and Knott, Knott jumped at the opportunity.
Chris Koyama, WHILL’s marketing director, drove to Knott’s home in Davis with a demo model. Knott works full-time with map management data for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He’s old school, having always owned a full-size van. He has also avoided power until just recently, when he bought a Spinergy ZX-1 power add-on for his Quickie GT manual chair. “I think it’s important to keep using my arms, but my shoulders have taken a beating recently. The ZX-1 works great for me.”
So why test a WHILL? “I like to stay up with the latest in mobility.” Although he didn’t say it, at his age he also knows that one day he may have to switch to a full-on power chair. But for now his ZX-1 unit gives him what he needs. “To work Charlie, my service dog, I need to have one hand to drive and one hand free to give commands and treats. ”
He likes the WHILL’s wheels best. “Those omni-directional wheels are great. I think there’s a future for those. But the lack of push handles handicapped me. And the chair was too flashy for me.” Maybe it’s because he’s a man and a former firefighter, but he wants a useful chair that doesn’t draw a lot of attention. “If anything, I want the attention to go to my dog, not what I’m sitting in.”
Why were the missing push handles a problem? “I depend on the handles for lateral support.” Many quads like to hook their arms on the handles for stability, to compensate for paralyzed abdominal muscles. “After 30 minutes in the chair, I just knew it wouldn’t work for me,” says Knott.
If WHILL offered a new model with more traditional design, would he be interested? “I’ll keep my eye on it, but the main criterion for me is do I want to be in power chair full-time? In my present chair, my wife and her girlfriend can lift me up a step or two. Can’t do that with a heavy power chair.” And the futuristic design? Not so desirable. “Maybe something in plain black. With super offroad capability and flexible seating and arm rests.”
by Bob Vogel
As a T10 complete para in my 30th year as a wheelchair user, my current preference is a rigid TiLite TR manual chair. However, my background includes test driving power chairs as both a manufacturer’s rep and writer for NEW MOBILITY, so I was interested in the WHILL’s unique design.
Initial impressions: Moving the control arms to the halfway point engages gas springs that smoothly raise them past vertical, which makes transfers a breeze. The adjustable-angle back provides good support, and controllers are located at a comfortable position to rest your hands. I found the mouse-like drive controller — located on one hand rest — easier and more intuitive to use than a joystick controller. The other hand rest has a slide switch for low, medium and high-speeds; also, forward and aft for moving the seat forward 9 inches for transfers and sitting at tables. My backpack fit nicely on a hanger built into the seat back.
Terrain: The four-wheel drive combined with 10-inch front wheels and suspension handled a bumpy, grassy field with ease and smoothly crossed a three-inch deep, sharply angled drainage ditch. I ascended a steep grassy section — a challenge for my aging shoulders in my manual chair — and the WHILL climbed it with ease. On concrete, I headed down a sidewalk at max speed — 5.5 mph, a fair clip judging by the quick trot of my service dog, Killy.
Mall Wheeling: Next stop was cruising an outdoor shopping mall, including wheeling through the late lunch crowd at a restaurant, then over to a grocery store. Paul Knott was behind me, checking people’s reactions to the WHILL. There weren’t any, which I like, but Davis is a college town and wheelchair users are common.
What’s Best: The coolest part of the WHILL is the all-directional design of the front wheels. With no caster forks, turning is enabled by very small wheels transversely mounted within and around the main wheel. This enabled me to wheel right next to display aisles and back up and go forward without catching a swiveling caster, and may also prevent “caster swivel wall damage.”
Problems: On the outdoor sections there was a minor rattle, and electronics were intermittently acting up. I experienced sluggish turning, slowing while in high speed mode, and seat movement instead of chair movement in low speed mode. More puzzling, when we got to the mall, the problems stopped and the chair ran smooth as can be. WHILL’s Chris Koyoma called the next day and explained a technician found the gas spring that lifts the right arm had come loose and was resting on the wiring, which caused electronic glitches on bumpy surfaces.
Service: Right now WHILL is located in California with dealers signed up in Washington, Florida, and the tri-state region of New York. Koyama says if a customer has a mechanical or electronic problem and lives outside a reasonable driving distance from a WHILL dealer, the company will send somebody to fix the chair within 48 hours.
Overall: I’m impressed with the WHILL’s performance, especially the front wheels. But as an old school guy, I find the futuristic design too flashy for me. For now, I prefer to stay in my custom-fitted, ultralight chair, clip on a FreeWheel in front for outdoor use, and help out my aging shoulders with a SmartDrive power assist. This way it is still easy to bump me up stairs and I can use standard cars rather than ramp vans.
That said, I’m stoked at the innovative design and look forward to seeing where WHILL goes from here.