Aug. 10 -- It's a wheelchair that can tackle curbs, rise to new heights and climb stairs. NBC's John Hockenberry reports.
NBC News
updated 10/26/2003 2:10:45 PM ET 2003-10-26T19:10:45

It’s a wheelchair that can tackle curbs, rise to new heights, and even climb stairs. For the past several years, the latest brainstorm of prolific inventor Dean Kamen has been undergoing rigorous testing by the Food and Drug administration, and “Dateline” has been given an unprecedented opportunity to observe. Does Kamen’s invention live up to its promise to take wheelchair riders just about anywhere they want to go?

For 49-year-old Rich Barbara, a wheelchair has been a trusted companion of nearly 30 years. Disabled in a climbing accident long ago, Rich and his chair have faced countless obstacles together. Some he plows over, hops up, and negotiates any way he can. Others he simply avoids, like steps. And there are all the things out of reach to a person sitting in a chair.

John Hockenberry: “I imagine in your 28 years you’ve asked somebody to get the Cream of Wheat down from the third shelf in the supermarket.”

Rich Barbara: “Sometimes. And there’s been times I’ve just rolled away.”

Yet these little dramas are mere subplots in Rich’s full life as a disabled man. He treasures his family and they treasure husband and dad, just the way he is. Yet Rich knows the edges of his world, where they can go and he cannot. For instance, at a park near his home in suburban Pittsburgh, he can roll with his sons up to a certain point, then no farther. Unable to negotiate the steep and winding path, Rich waits under a tree. Meanwhile, the boys continue down the trail to their favorite pond.

Barbara: “It’s another piece of their life that they’ve always wanted to share, that they’ve struggled to share with words.”

Words crossing boundaries that wheelchairs can’t. But Rich is in for a surprise. A device that will force him to reconsider virtually all the presumed boundaries in his world, a machine that will stir up Rich’s 30 years of assumptions about what wheelchairs can do. The inventor of this new machine claims the impact on all wheelchair users will be nothing short of revolutionary.

Dean Kamen: “It is rare to be associated with a project that is really a breakthrough in terms of thinking.”

Dean Kamen is one of this nation’s most prestigious inventors. He’s also the brain behind “It.” You remember “It,” revealed to be the much heralded two-wheeled device, the Segway, which Kamen says will solve urban congestion. For years, he’s been something of a medical Thomas Edison, inventing exotic drug pumps and this portable kidney dialysis machine.

Kamen: “I don’t work on a project unless I believe it will dramatically improve life for a whole bunch of people.”

When it came to wheelchairs, the big breakthrough for Kamen was envisioning a machine that could stand up and balance the way humans do.

Kamen: “Your mother remembers your first steps. It’s a big deal that humans walk erect. It’s difficult to do. But once we’ve learned to do it, we’re capable of dealing with curbs and a world with stairs.”

Kamen and his engineers came up with a balancing prototype that worked and became a top secret patented invention, crammed full of sophisticated gyroscopes, electric motors and computers.

In May of 1999, Kamen allowed “Dateline NBC” an exclusive peek at it. To our surprise, Kamen’s machine was actually more compact, and narrower than a traditional wheelchair.

Hockenberry: “So this looks like a fairly normal power wheelchair. It seems to have slightly different wheels. If you were on the street in this, people would think, oh, it’s just one of those power wheelchairs.”
Kamen: “John, I have to tell you this is not a wheelchair. This is an extraordinary machine.”

So what is this “extraordinary machine” capable of doing? Kamen was happy to demonstrate here on his own obstacle course full of all kinds of wheelchair nightmares.

Like a pretty basic one, a standard curb. Now of course I had to be a hot shot. But it isn’t a practical thing to do with say a bag of groceries in my lap or a small child. They’d go flying.

Hockenberry: “So, anyone sitting in that chair sees an eight-inch curb, what do they do?”
Kamen: “I would just do what normal people do. I’d kind of walk up the curb.”

And so the machine went up the curb.

Kamen: “And you noticed, I stayed perfectly level. And now I want to come off the curb. Now my wheels will adjust, but my seat stays completely level here as I come down the curb.”

Not bad, but there is a much tougher obstacle, one that anyone in a wheelchair might rule out.

Hockenberry: “I approach these stairs, I’m looking really for somebody to haul me up the stairs. Now you see these stairs, what happens?”
Kamen: “I have a little icon that we built onto this device. I will tip myself back just a little bit. And now grab the rails. If I lean back a little bit, the wheels will come over the top from one stair to the other. I can come up a little ways and by stopping here I can stop.”

Hockenberry: “Now are you pulling the chair up the stairs?”
Kamen: “No. If I lean back I come up, if I lean forward I come down.”

You might think it’s hard to top climbing stairs, but check out what the machine can do on really rough terrain — like sand.

Kamen: “I bet you you won’t be able to get completely into it, never mind out of it.”
Hockenberry: “So I’ll drop down there and I won’t be able to move an inch. That’s what you think? Well, I think you’re wrong about that... alright.”
Kamen: “And I think you’re done.”
Hockenberry: “Alright, I can kind of inch along by doing this, so I beat your threshold, let’s just notice that, and I’m here pretty much till the tide comes up. How far is whiz boy going to get now?”
Kamen: “Well, as you see, I’m going to drive in, I’ll come over the curb keeping my balance as always. Now all four wheels will drive and if I want to move, I just go.”
Hockenberry: “It’s like you’re not even in sand.”
Kamen: “And if I happen to want to climb out of the sand, I will just climb out. If I want to go into gravel.”
Hockenberry: “You win.” [laughter]

But for the disabled, what really puts Kamen’s invention in a league of its own is the fact that it can actually “stand up” on two wheels and balance itself. Why is that so important? Four wheels on the ground suddenly and magically become two wheels, just standing there.

Hockenberry: “How does this do this on wheels?”
Kamen: “Balance is sort of fundamental to the way we all get around.”

It looks like it could fall over, but it won’t. Throw a 25-pound bag of lead at Kamen and the machine compensates like a champ. Kamen says his machine’s computer brain has a quicker reaction time than a human being. This self balancing technology is also the basis for Kamen’s new Segway which may take some time to become a hit with commuters. But the impact of Kamen’s wheelchair is immediate and as real as the items that one tester, spinal cord injured Tammy Wilbur, can now get off the high shelves. More than that, it’s the reality of being back in a part of a world denied to people who can’t stand up.

Wilber: [crying] “I haven’t felt this way for a long time — just tall.”
Kamen: “It’s not the technology. It could be fairy dust. If this thing works, and works right, we’re going to liberate millions of people to do things that they couldn’t even think about doing before.”

But you can’t buy one of Kamen’s new wheelchairs yet. The device, which has been dubbed the iBOT, is on it’s way to the retail market. It’s being developed for commercial use by the Johnson & Johnson corporation. But because a wheelchair is considered a medical device, before the iBOT can reach the marketplace, Johnson & Johnson has to receive clearance from the Food and Drug Administration. And that’s no walk on the beach, let me tell you!

The iBOT has already passed the FDA’s in-house clinical tests. But the most challenging and time-consuming phase is the field trials — testing in a real world environment.

During the summer of 2001, “Dateline” was again given exclusive access as four people, including Rich Barbara, were selected to first train on the iBOT and then take it home for a week to use in any manner they chose. On his first day of training with the iBOT, even with his wife Robin looking on, Rich was clearly nervous.

Barbara: “I’m one of those guys that doesn’t trust technology.”

And the first time the chair went into two-wheel balance mode, Rich’s reaction was one of disbelief.

Barbara: “Can I look? I don’t believe it. It’s violating rules that I was taught when I was little.”

But after a week of training, Rich was out on the streets of Pittsburgh, fully at ease with the iBOT and adept at its controls. He rolls into a small pizza parlor. He “stands up” on two wheels and to the surprise of customers, is able to look over the counter to order and pay for his drink. And at the bookstore, it’s a piece of cake to browse through those previously unreachable titles on the upper shelf.

Barbara: “The emotional reaction came after. I mean, it was just, hey, I’m up here. I’m reading. It’s like ‘Wow.’”
Hockenberry: “It’s a good feeling to be tall?”
Barbara: “Yeah. Has some advantages.”

Next, it’s a trip with the family to an outdoor Italian market in downtown Pittsburgh, where the curbs and rough sidewalks pose no problem at all. And at the fish market, being tall not only helps when checking out the day’s catch, but also when engaging in a little horseplay with the kids. But out of all his experiences with the iBOT, what truly hit home for Rich was something he least expected — the simple act of throwing a baseball.

Barbara: “There’s this incredible excitement because it’s reminding me what it was like to throw a ball, to bring your arm back and the whole wheelchair, the iBOT, dithers back a bit, just like anybody else would, their body would shift. First time I realized it — a rush. And underneath the rush, an incredible sadness. [crying] I’m feeling it now. After I got hurt, from my experience, the person that had the hardest time reconnecting was my younger brother. We threw a ball around and after I got hurt, we lost our way of relating.”
Hockenberry: “What does it mean for a machine to be able to teleport you back 28 years, to an experience you had standing, with your younger brother?”
Barbara: “It’s a bit like H.G. Wells, on some level, you know? It’s a bit like a time machine.”
What the iBOT was able to do for Rich was make his already full life more complete, his experiences more vivid. But even more profound, the fusion of machine balancing technology with Rich’s own distant memory of standing reconnected something severed between his brain and body. It’s a connection that his whole family feels in a simple walk in the park, on a trail where the journey need not end for those unable to walk.
Barbara: “Now I have a little eye into their world. This time I was there. I saw it. You know, it wasn’t like all I heard was the story. What I’m talking about is the experience of being there, you know?”

When the chair finally rolls out for the public, it will be available only with a doctor’s prescription, and won’t be cheap. It’s expected to cost about $30,000. FDA approval could come as soon as Aug. 11.

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