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Casey SmitheranCasey Smitheran

For ASU research scholar Casey Smitheran, a power wheelchair is the key to a full and active life. Because of his limited mobility, Smitheran relies on his chair as a taxi that transports him six blocks from his house to his job at the Office of Knowledge and Enterprise Development on the Tempe campus. During the workday, it doubles as office furniture or a dining chair at a local restaurant at lunch. After hours in a movie theater, it serves as a mini-recliner or tilts into a chaise lounge for relaxing in his Zen rock garden at home. On long road trips to visit family in California, it becomes a substitute car seat. For 14 hours each day, no matter the activity, Smitheran’s chair is an essential hub in the wheel of life.

Nonetheless, he observes, “my chair holds me back as much as it propels me forward.” That’s because Smitheran must keep pace with all the demands of a 21st century life in a wheelchair whose design innovation largely stalled in the 1990s.

Determined to find ways to better align wheelchairs with today’s needs and available technologies, Smitheran joined InnovationSpace in 2012. The fall 2014 semester marks his third year of collaboration with the program in which he guides students in design, business and engineering in the development of product concepts that reimagine greater access and well-being for people in wheelchairs.

To help students understand just how much wheelchairs fall short, Smitheran shares the results of some simple comparison shopping he’s done over the years. His chair, for example, retails for a whopping $31,000, which is comparable to the sticker price for a higher-end Honda sedan, he says. The Honda, however, meets car owners’ expectations for comfort, style and connectivity. It includes such features as seat warmers, air conditioning, keyless entry, a navigation system and voice-recognition communication. Smitheran’s wheelchair, by contrast, fails the comparison test. It doesn’t even include shock absorbers. The device shudders and rattles when it crosses even minor irregularities in the pavement on the way to work. “I know every crack between home and campus,” Smitheran says, laughing.

The list of shortcomings doesn’t stop there. To relieve pressure on his hip bones, for example, Smitheran must recline for regular short intervals throughout the day. The speed at which his chair tilts, however, is agonizingly slow. Then there’s the matter of juggling a wide array of electronic interfaces for even the most basic activities. Unlike the dashboard of an automobile, which conveniently integrates a wide array of functions, Smitheran must switch from the joystick and button controls on his armrest to the touch screens of the cellphone and iPad that are stashed on his lap. And forget comfort. Easy, do-it-yourself adjustments are largely nonexistent. More often than not, fitting users, even for something as fundamental as seats and foot rests, requires repeat trips to showroom technicians. Frustrated with the time and money wasted on traveling back and forth, many people give up and resign themselves to discomfort. Finally, there’s the issue of aesthetics. Most power wheelchairs are clunky and bulky, Smitheran points out. In short, just plain ugly.

The neglect of such basic design considerations routinely catches students off-guard, including Carlos Terminel Iberri, a product designer in the 2013–2014 InnovationSpace program. “Right off the bat, I was surprised by how primitive power wheelchairs are despite the fact that they’re so expensive” he observes, “and how little change there’s been to the design over the last 20 years. There’s really no excuse for it because we have the technology, we have the resources and there is a demand for it. People in wheelchairs are often marginalized in terms of the consumer space. We focus so much more on the needs of able-bodied ‘typical’ users that we don’t think about the needs of people who could use good design the most.”

In their final InnovationSpace project, Terminel Iberri and his team focused on the challenges of storage and technological integration. “We didn’t have the time or resources to redesign a whole wheelchair,” he pointed out, “so we tackled smaller problems and developed solutions that could be retrofitted to existing wheelchairs.”

Using Bluetooth technology, the team incorporated audio capabilities into a headrest, allowing wheelchair users to listen to music or carry on a phone conversation while in a reclining position during breaks for pressure relief. They also outfitted the headrests with tiny cameras that gave occupants a backward view of the obstacles in their path via a wireless video feed to an iPad. And they created an elegant lapdesk with easy-to-access storage compartments.

Similar needs have been addressed through design and technology in automobiles for decades, Smitheran points out. Power wheelchairs have not received the same scrutiny. He admits that “it’s a complicated issue because there are so many different kinds of physical and mental disabilities.” And because wheelchairs aren’t manufactured in the same numbers as automobiles, they don’t benefit from the same economies of scale. Finally, making a good business case for disability products involves a far more diverse cast of players such as insurance companies, government health providers and regulatory agencies. Nonetheless, “there’s so much plug-and-play opportunity, so many things that we’re currently not taking advantage of,” he observes. “If you can design these wheelchairs so they’re more comfortable and technologically integrated, then you can put people in places where they can be more active, more able to work, more able to do the types of things that get them out into the community being productive.”

David GustonDavid Guston

Nanotechnology (the ability to manipulate matter on the scale of atoms and molecules) has become the Holy Grail of the global science community. It's been hailed as holding the potential cure for all that ails us from pollution cleanup and energy savings to cures for cancer.

So far, however, the hope for nano hasn't lived up to the hype, says David Guston. He is director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS-ASU), a consortium at Arizona State University that studies the societal implications of nanoscale science and engineering research.

Guston points out that nano-based materials already have found their way into more than 200 consumer products. But the list is less than inspiring: stain-resistant Brooks Brothers ties and Eddie Bauer khaki pants, face creams, skis, more durable tennis balls, translucent sunscreen lotions and kitchen paint. Such products fall far short of fulfilling nano's promise, he observes. “Although it's billed as such, we have no idea whether or not nanotechnology will be a revolution,” Guston says. “It takes more than the knowledge-based technology itself to transform society. There are a whole host of things that go into an innovation beyond the knowledge from the scientists and the technical materials.”

In partnership with the CNS-ASU, three InnovationSpace teams will be exploring the potential of nano to serve the loftier aim of societal transformation. In the 2006-7 school year, students will focus on creating innovative, nano-based applications that enhance the freedom, privacy and security of citizens and communities.

A special challenge for students, Guston observes, is working with a technology so small that it can't be “seen” through conventional means such as microscopes. This miniscule scale allows nanotechnology to be used in potentially fantastical ways. Take the use of nanoparticles in sensors, for example. One of Guston's favorite scenarios for future nanotechnology is embedding sensors in flooring materials such as carpet or tile. These sensors could track the movement of patients in an Alzheimer's ward, guide visitors on tours through art museums or monitor personnel in a secured military facility. Invisible nano sensors could also someday be folded into interior wall paints for more insidious purposes such as eavesdropping on conversations.

But a nano-based product need not be high-tech, Guston says, to “make things a bit better in the world. It can be profound even in its smallness.” What matters is that students carefully weigh the needs of their users and those of society in developing new products.

“If decisions about science and technology are not made well, then a whole host of terrible things can happen,” Guston observes. “And making them well really raises the possibility of doing tremendous and wonderful things for everyone across the globe, improving ourselves not just materially but also in how we get along with one another and how society flourishes. Making good decisions about emerging technologies is an absolutely critical endeavor.”

John Hall and Alex ZautraResilience Solutions Group: John Hall and Alex Zautra

John Hall and Alex Zautra study a question that is as old as the book of Job: How do people rebound after life breaks their stride with a destabilizing setback such as physical disability, chronic illness or the loss of a loved one?

“Our goals, objectives and hopes are challenged from time to time by some pretty severe events that can interrupt the flow of life and the future that a person envisions for himself,” says Alex Zautra, an ASU professor of psychology.

“Part of resilience is sustaining one’s interests, motivation, and direction. It’s also the ability to bounce back, regain one’s momentum and find one’s footing after having lost it,” he says. “Resilience is measured by the speed and fullness of the recovery from difficulties.”

Hall and Zautra are members of a group of ASU psychologists and social scientists known as the Resilience Solutions Group (RSG). Zautra cofounded the RSG in 2002 with Hall, a public policy professor in the School of Public Affairs. At the time, Zautra was studying how older adults survived the crippling pain of arthritis. Specifically, he looked at how these people found a way to manage their pain effectively without sacrificing pleasure, productivity and meaning in their lives.

During those studies, Zautra came across a sobering report that Hall had just published entitled “Coming of Age.” Hall’s study challenged Arizona’s readiness to handle the coming demographic bulge in its elderly population. The two met to discuss their mutual interests.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What is the best sort of project or set of projects that could be done now to help prepare people to sustain their quality of life as they age?’ Together we came up with the theme of resilience,” Zautra says.

Since then, RSG researchers have tackled a host of challenging social issues from rethinking the training of volunteer caregivers who work with dying elders in hospice environments to studying the resourceful ways in which pregnant women on public assistance are able to navigate a complicated medical system.

In 2005, the National Institute on Aging awarded the ASU group a $2.2 million grant. The plan is to study an ethnically diverse group of 800 baby boomers between the ages of 45 and 65 in the Phoenix metro area. The RSG’s goal is to determine what factors contribute to and enhance resiliency. This capacity for self-righting has been shown to be vital in sustaining both physical health and emotional well-being.

Building resilience, however, is not a solo undertaking. As Hall points out, “Resilience is not something you do alone. Social cohesion is vital to resilience. People need to feel that they’re a part of something larger rather than just atoms in the universe.” Facilities, programs and activities on the community level, he says, all contribute to helping people rebound from adverse events. It can be something as simple as knowing that you can count on your neighbors to help in an emergency. Or it might involve redesigning a community’s infrastructure in order to make it more navigable for elder residents.

InnovationSpace students will have a chance to road test some of the RSG’s ideas in the 2007-2008 program. Six of the nine student teams are charged with developing product concepts that improve the function of healing environments as well as help elders cope with a trio of common maladies including dementia, arthritis and social isolation. Thanks to a $20,000 grant from ASU’s Student Pathways program, Hall and Zautra will join the crossdisciplinary InnovationSpace faculty for two semesters. They will deliver lectures on some of the latest resilience research as well as stress the resilience perspective throughout the concept development and design phases. Rather than simply search for problems in need of solutions, Zautra and Hall will urge student teams to use insights from resilience research to design products, environments and systems that “recognize the strengths and acknowledge the capacities of the people you’re working with.”

“One developmental psychologist called resilience ‘the ordinary miracles of people,’” Zautra adds. “We need to have our finger on the pulse of those natural capacities.”


Teresa CardonTeresa Cardon

In 1991, when Teresa Cardon was teaching a preschool class in Brea, California, she met a student who would change her life. “He was the cutest little boy with the biggest blue eyes I’d ever seen,” she recalls. “Every morning he would come into the classroom and smell my hair. I’d pull him up on my lap, and we’d cuddle a few minutes before class started.” Displays of affection were common in Cardon’s class. But this little boy was different. Weeks passed, and he never uttered a word. Cardon soon found out why. Tests revealed that the little boy had autism, a developmental disorder that often is marked by the inability to communicate.

The encounter would change Cardon’s life. As a part-time babysitter for the family, she saw firsthand the emotional and financial toll that an autism diagnosis can take. She also witnessed the extraordinary hope that professional therapy provides. “One day I watched a speech therapist come in and work with my student,” Cardon recalls. Word by word, he began to build the vocabulary he needed to navigate his world. “It was amazing,” Cardon says. “No one else had gotten him to communicate. It was my ‘aha’ moment. I knew that this was the work I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Today, Cardon is a Ph.D. student in speech and hearing science at ASU and a member of the university’s Infant Child Research Programs (ICRP). Her research is focused on creating and testing new therapies that will help young children with autism learn to imitate, a function that is central to developing language and social skills. When she finishes her doctorate in May 2010, she hopes to land a job as a college professor. Working as an educator, Cardon points out, “will allow me to reach my goal--which is to impact as many people as possible in supporting children with autism.”

Little did Cardon know that her sphere of influence would include students in design, business and engineering. In the 2009-2010 InnovationSpace course, Cardon is serving as an expert consultant to three student teams that are designing educational toys for children with autism. Although autism is the nation’s fastest growing developmental disability, with one in 100 children diagnosed each year, the needs of children with this disorder are overlooked by the toy industry. “I’ve never found a toy that was specifically designed to support a child with autism,” Cardon points out. “They don’t exist. Therapists are forced to adapt toys currently on the market for educational purposes.”

But having lots of product-opportunity gaps doesn’t make designing toys for these youngsters any easier, she adds. The syndrome is referred to as autism spectrum disorder for a reason. “I’ve worked with thousands of children with autism, and you’re never going to meet a child with autism who is exactly like another child,” Cardon explains.

For example, communication is one of the core deficits of children with autism. But in learning to communicate, children favor one mode over another. Some use words, others employ sign language. Still others prefer assistive devices, such as touch-activated picture boards that speak on their behalf. “They’re all very different so it’s hard to design a toy for a group that is so diverse,” Cardon says.

To help students understand these varied needs and capabilities, Cardon arranged for the InnovationSpace teams to spend long hours watching children in the ICRP’s clinical lab. She also gave classroom lectures, helped brainstorm ideas for product concepts and provided critical reviews of shortlisted ideas.

Cardon has been impressed with the groups’ dedication to their complex task. “I work in a field where we all are here to help kids,” Cardon observes. “That’s what we do. To see how the InnovationSpace students have become caught up in this enthusiasm to help is pretty amazing. Life is hard for families with children who have autism. When you realize that you can help in some small way, that you can make a difference, that’s when it becomes worthwhile. I think the students have caught that fever. They believe that they can make a difference.”