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Design Concepts: The Modern Wheelchair

The Web is teeming with the unrealized ideas of both students and established designers who set out to produce astonishing renderings and prototypes for unusual products. Unfortunately, due to the lack of time, money, or technology, many of those products never progress from the planning stages to the mass market. But that doesn't mean we can't salivate over them, nevertheless.

Last week we focused on a selection of gadgets designed to help the visually impaired, but that barely scratched the surface of products for those with special needs. According to a 2000 report from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, 1.7 million Americans use either wheelchairs or scooters to aid their mobility. That, of course, ranges from people completely confined to wheelchairs to those who use them as a rehabilitative aid due to injury or illness. But hospital-issued chairs tend to be designed with nothing more than the overarching concern that they ought to be chairs that move. (And if you've ever watched a game of Murderball, you know that all wheelchairs are not made equal.) Some designers, though, have begun to incorporate other considerations, like aesthetics and comfort, into their wheelchair prototypes. Check out a handful of our favorite new concepts after the break.

Catapult wheelchair by Tom Robbins

We know that recumbent bikes are all the rage nowadays, especially with the older, granola-munching crowd. (No judgment!) But, for the Catapult wheelchair, the laid-back design makes even more sense. Instead of coming from the pedals, power proceeds from the hand-pumped levers on either side of the chair. We question designer Tom Robbins's decision to make one iteration of the Catapult that steers with the feet (pictured above), but Robbins has a second prototype that can be steered with hands and arms -- perfect for those without the use of their legs.

Zenith wheelchair by Josefina Chaves-Posse

How kick-ass is this wheelchair? Well, we could spell it out for you by saying that it climbs stairs easier than you can crumple a Kleenex, and punishes rough terrain under its fat treads. But, after you realize that the Zenith chair is manually powered, and thus requires some fierce upper-body strength, you'll understand that both driver and chair are simply not to be effed with. Designer Josefina Chaves-Posse states, "The Zenith chair offers the user full independence, control, and security." Security is right, because who would mess with you in this 'Robocop' contraption?

Inclusive Objects by David Pompa

David Pompa's Inclusive Objects series questions design that is intended for an elite consumer base. As anyone who, like us, has ever practically licked the windows of Design Within Reach can tell you, fancy design comes with a fancy price tag, and almost never takes special-needs individuals into consideration. Pompa wonders why a wheelchair-bound person shouldn't be able to enjoy an Eames chair just as an ambulatory design hound would. But, unless you're particularly adept at moving with two wheels, the Eames wheelchair is not exactly functional. Still, we love this conceptual piece because it brings to light exactly the kind of functionality that designers ignore in place of aesthetics -- when, as you can see, the two are completely commensurate.

Nimbl wheelchair by Lawrence Kwok

Well, it seems that designer Lawrence Kwok had some of the same questions as Pompa, but he drew up a concept with to-die-for looks that actually rolls like a wheelchair should. Kwok's motorized Nimbl chair features beautiful, hubless, wheels and a wood frame that puts other wheelchair chassis to shame. With fully adjustable height and tilt, Nimbl also sports tiny back wheels, allowing for quick turns in spaces that haven't been designed specifically for wheelchair use.

Roll.Charge.Light.Protect by Min-Goo Kim, Yun-Jin Chang and Su-Eun Park

People confined to wheelchairs sometimes find it difficult to travel by themselves at night due to low visibility. Reflective tape can help motorists see you slightly better, but, really, you need headlights of your own. The Roll.Charge.Light.Protect wheelchair doesn't rely on high beams, though; rather, it resorts to pimpin' LED-lit wheels that get their power from kinetic motion. We're not huge fans of the power level indicators bizarrely placed in the center of each wheel, but we love that RCLP's energy-neutral design illuminates your awesomeness for distracted drivers while lighting your way, too.

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