Georgia Tech researchers develop way for wheelchair users to steer with head tilts, facial expressions

Two Georgia Tech engineers, Nordine Sebkhi and Arpan Bhavsar, say that they are ready to ask for volunteers and test out a new form of technology for power wheelchair users. The two engineers say that the technology will use magnetic sensors to allow the user to maneuver around using head tilts and facial expressions.

Fox 5 Atlanta

5/7/20222 min read

ATLANTA - Inside the Aware House on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta, Matt McCoy is testing out what could be the next big thing in assistive technology: a system of magnetic sensors on his face and behind his ear allowing him steer his power wheelchair by tilting his head.

For five years, Georgia Tech postdoctoral research engineers Nordine Sebkhi and Arpan Bhavsar have been fine-tuning the technology they call MagTrack, getting ready for McCoy and a handle of other volunteers living with a disability to test it out.

"I'd say we feel pretty great, yeah, after the testing that we saw," Sebkhi and Bhavsar say. "We're able to navigate the hallways and go inside the bedroom without destroying the home."

McCoy did not want to do an interview, but he was comfortable being videotaped as he was maneuvering his chair around the home, wearing magnetic sensors that detect when he tilts his head or changes his facial expression

Sebkhi and Bhavsar say their hope is their MagTrack technology can give people unable to move from the neck down more independence and be less cumbersome than the currently available assistive technology.

Matt McCoy testing out a system of magnetic sensors on his face and behind his ear allowing him steer his power wheelchair by tilting his head.

"So, the idea is how can we create something that is wearable, that will be on them all the time, will not clutter anything around them, and will let them be able to eat, drink, without having to reset that technology?" Sebkhi says.  

And, MagTrack does more than drive a wheelchair.  

Users can employ it to open up and control smartphone apps or operate smart technology in their homes with a head tilt or facial movement.

"Whenever the user makes a cheek twitch, or eyebrow raise, the sensor will pick that up, and then it will transfer that to whatever command you have mapped it to," Bhavsar says.  "So, for example, on the wheelchair, one of the cheeks can act to stop the wheelchair.  On the phone, for example, one of the cheeks can act as a left click."

Bhavsar and Sebkhi are working with a team from Brooks Rehabilitation, and they plan to spend the next year having volunteers from Shepherd Center and other rehabilitation hospitals try out the MagTrack assistive technology and offer their feedback.

They are still working out some kinks and trying to answer some bigger questions, such as whether there is a role for this newer technology.

Mostly, they want to hear what power wheelchair users think of the MagTrack systems and the idea of wearing wires on their faces.

"One of the big problems with this population is that they don't want to draw attention to themselves," Sebkhi says.  "So, they want an assisted technology that is as inconspicuous as possible. This is what the challenge is.  How can you make something that is very practical, like a universal controller, like the one we have, but it is inconspicuous?  This is the real challenge.  So, we have to see, where is the line?  Is having wires on your face okay for you?"