My final week at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability (RHN) has revealed that inevitably I’m not the only person examining the possibilities for improved seating design. From car seats to desk chairs to wheelchairs, the message is always the same; using new technologies future seats can and need to be better designed around the human body. There’s an asterisk on the end of that phrase though: the sheer amount of variation doesn’t make this an easy task. To this end a great deal of time this week has been spent reading through academic papers examining different aspects or users of all sorts of chairs, and obtaining the many papers referenced in each.
Scientists from all walks of life will likely be familiar with the concept of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. I believe these two phrases can be considered synonyms for research. I started this week with a set of known unknowns; research avenues to pursue given where I thought I could gain information to aid the development of the wheelchair seat prescription device I mentioned in my last post. By the end of this week, after travelling through link after link online and receiving a ton of leads from discussions with hospital staff, this project has gained more facets than it started with. It turns out there are far more unknown unknowns than known unknowns in this project!
It is often the case with many a soap opera episode that the opening story leads on to a bigger issue that takes up the remaining time of the episode before reaching resolution at the end.
My Charity Insights project, much like many a research project, is beginning to resemble such an episode. The problems with current wheelchairs as identified at the outset have swiftly revealed a deeply related and possibly more fundamental issue with wheelchairs. The seat, the undeniably most important wheelchair component, is fundamentally flawed.
It’s a problem rehabilitation hospitals and companies alike have been trying to solve for decades. How do you design a seat that is applicable to the widest spectrum of users?
If you’re reading this as a fellow engineer, I have a challenge for you. Strike up a debate with a doctor about which of your two professions is best, and I guarantee you that the doctor will rebut with the indisputable repost: ‘the human body is the ultimate engineering’. Try and counter that one!
This is exactly the realm I entered upon starting my first day at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability for my Charity Insights placement this summer. I received several slightly surprised looks as I introduced myself not as a medical student eager to delve into the world of neuroscience, but as a student of mechanical engineering with no inclination to becoming a doctor.