Apr. 30, 2015 | By Simon

Although we’ve seen quite the gamut of various DIY projects that utilize both 3D printing and microcontrollers to create a unique and customized hardware product design, very few of these projects have been done by a disabled person in an effort to help make their - and others - lives easier in the case that their condition get worse.  However, this is exactly what the mission of UK-based maker Patrick Joyce has been for the past few years.

Joyce, who has degenerative condition motor neuron disease (also known as MND or ALS), was hit with his initial idea in 2013 to create an eye-tracking wheelchair controller that allows a user who has lost all motor functions except for eye movement to be able to control their wheelchair and an onboard computer.  He was inspired in part by his friend and project partner Steve Evans, who also suffers from MND and is only able to use his eyes to communicate and control objects via eye gazing.  Together, Joyce and Evans were joined by fellow Maker David Hopkinson who helped with some more involved physical tasks for the project.

To begin with, Joyce wanted to utilize the existing hardware that the UK government provides for those with MND: a motorized wheelchair and an eye gaze computer.  In order to create a concept that would work, he would have to create a 3D printed ‘Electronic Hand’ unit that would cover and control the chair’s joystick.  This would be operated by a unique program from an Arduino board which is controlled by existing eye-tracking software.         

Because he would be using government-issued hardware (the motorized wheel chair and eye gaze computer) for those who likely weren’t “Maker Geeks”, Joyce had to create an open source solution that was as minimally-invasive as possible and could be adjusted to fit a variety of needs; there are over 5,000 in the UK alone who suffer from MND.  

“I envisioned having two parts - an Electronic Hand unit, and a Brain Box to control it,” says Joyce in a blog post.  

“Making the Electronic Hand should be fairly easy using servo motors, but I was stuck on what the Brainn Box would actually be . . . until I discovered Arduino!”

Using an Arduino microcontroller as a foundation for the project, Joyce began to build out his solution - however, he was met by some setbacks upon realizing that many of the components would need to be created using a 3D printer; something he didn’t have at the time.   

However, thanks to the power of social media, Joyce was able to get his initial parts printed by “the ludicrously well-named” Tim Helps, who himself had access to a 3D printer.   

Using the 3D printed parts provided generously by Helps, Joyce was able to continue building his first prototype.  While the prototype - named MK1 - worked and proved the concept, it was complicated to build a needed specialized parts and training in order to properly assemble.  

Upon the arrival of his 3D printer in October of 2014, Joyce began work on his second prototype - the MK2 - along with the help and experience of Evans.   

“Initially I thought we'd interface the computer with the Brain Box via infrared, as most wheelchair mounted computers have infrared environmental control,” adds Joyce.

“But after consulting Steve I dropped this in favour of a direct connection via USB and got busy writing software for it in Processing.”

To test the platform, Joyce and Evans conducted a typing speed test over Skype; while Joyce used a traditional keyboard and his hands, Evans used the eye tracking software.  According to Joyce, “his eyes actually managed to beat my hand. Just.”

While the project is still ongoing and currently under development, Joyce is hoping to have a final design delivered in November of 2015.  By then, he’s hoping to have built a small production run of finished units to be given to MND sufferers along with a comprehensive set of open source building instructions and ultimately, plans to put a manufactured product into distribution for giving to MND sufferers around the world.   

If Joyce doesn’t inspire the inner-Maker within you, we don’t know what does!  You stay updated on the project by heading over to Joyce's project page on Hackaday.  



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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