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In 1981, Everest and Jennings owned the North-American power wheelchair market with their 3P model. No, it wasn't because they had a superior, innovative product - in fact, they essentially made no changes to their power wheelchair during the previous decade, where they pronounced going from a wire spoke wheel to a mag wheel as progress. Rather, the reason why Everest and Jennings owned the power wheelchair market was because there was virtually no competition.

But, then came Invacare. Having pooled investor money, medical industry insiders purchased the ailing manual wheelchair division, Invacare, from Johnson & Johnson in December of 1979 for $7.8 million, quickly striving to not just turn around the company's tiny, dwindling market share, but to tackle the industry giant, Everest and Jennings.

Invacare soon invested $500,000 - a staggering amount at the time - to develop a "motorized wheelchair," one intended to help dethrone Everest and Jennings as a whole. By 1981, the Invacare Rolls IV power wheelchair was launched, and immediately gained attention. Not only was the Rolls IV dramatically more stylish and durable than the 3P, but the Rolls IV featured such advancements as electronic braking, increasing safety and performance.

However, the Rolls IV soon exhibited some alarming idiosyncrasies. The original version had what the Invacare's vice president of quality control called a "process control problem," where the electronics didn't always deliver equal power to each motor, making steering less predictable. However, Invacare wasn't about to concede to Everest and Jennings, who was in the process of cosmetically updating their 3P. Instead, Invacare partnered with an electronics firm from New Zealand, Dynamic Controls (a company that Invacare later bought), and purchased an inductive joystick from an English company, creating the first "digitally-controlled" power wheelchair. By 1983, the Rolls IV was superior to the Everest and Jennings' 3P model in every way, pulling the company toward success while eating Everest and Jennings' market share. Throughout the 1980s, while Everest and Jennings struggled to update its power wheelchair line with subsequent 3V and 3W models, Invacare stayed ahead in technology - and, most importantly, gained market share - obliterating Everest and Jennings with the next-generation Invacare Arrow models, a brand that ultimately evolved into the industry rear-wheel-drive leader by the mid 1990s. Invacare started with advancements in electronics, and ended by entirely defeating Everest and Jennings.

An Industry Legacy Flashed-Forward
Almost three decades later, today power wheelchair electronics play a greater role than ever before in the mobility market place, where Invacare, Quantum Rehab, and Sunrise Medical each have their own proprietary, high-end electronics, and companies like Permobil and Innovation in Motion work with off-the-shelf manufacturers PG Drive Controls and Dynamic Controls to package their high-end electronics. Based on the level of power wheelchair, high-end electronics are standard on some models and a significant upcharge on others - and it's important for consumers to understand the features and functions of high-end electronics, and what to expect when purchasing and using them.

High-End Electronics Systems (North America)
    DX2 (Dynamic Controls)
    iQ  (Sunrise Medical)
    MK6i (Invacare)
    Q-Logic (Quantum Rehab)
    R-Net (PG Drive Controls, used on Permobil)

It's All About Data
Make no mistake, much like computers and cell phones, today's high-end power wheelchair electronics are data-intensive. Gone are the days of "analog" joystick housings with three buttons and a light bar battery gauge. Instead, high-end electronics now feature quick-access buttons, scrolling dials, and full color screens that display real-time numerical data ranging from a speedometer, odometer, battery gauge (in numerical values), clock, and power seating position, to name a few on-screen features. What's more, the current generation of electronics have advanced menu selections that allow the user to change the language, or lock the power wheelchair for security. And, if all of that isn't impressive enough, high-end electronics even possess infrared and bluetooth compatibility, allowing the user to control appliances or a computer mouse through the joystick.

How It All Works
Older power wheelchair electronics were "hardware-based" systems, where fixed circuit boards dictated the function. While certain driving characteristics were programmable, no aspects of the electronics could be changed without altering the physical hardware.

However, to use an analogy, if older power wheelchair electronics were like a cassette player, based on elementary circuit boards, new, high-end electronics are an iPod, with operating systems based on firmware and software. As a result, today's high-end electronics are designed to accept operating system upgrades, adding tremendous flexibility over the long-term to update a power wheelchair's features and performance.

Are the Bugs Out?
It's been approximately two years since the latest generation of electronics hit the market from most manufacturers. And, mix no words, they all had bugs come to light when initially launched in the market at large. However, as software-based systems, manufacturers were able to promptly supply field upgrades and patches, moving from 1.0 versions to 1.2, and so on, very quickly to resolve any issues. Today, most systems are remarkably stable, providing both innovation and reliability.

Adjusting to Real-Time Data
An interesting side affect of the wheelchair industry moving fairly rapidly from "analog" to "live-data" electronics is that some long-time power wheelchair users haven't known how to entirely process real-time data as it applies to everyday use. The best example of this is in consumers struggling to adjust from reading a "delayed light bar" battery gauge to reading a "real-time numerical" battery gauge. On a traditional light bar battery gauge, the first light wouldn't dim until battery capacity dropped by, say, 10%, so, at 92% state-of-charge, users still saw a fully-illuminated battery gauge, implying a full charge remaining even though the batteries were really down 8%. However, modern numerical battery gauges display 100%, then 99%, then 98%, and so on, in real time. Therefore, while some users are initially concerned that their batteries are depleting quicker while watching a real-time numerical gauge, it's really just that they're now witnessing data that wasn't accurately conveyed on previous electronics - that is, light bar gauges simply didn't show the true, real-time rate at which batteries discharge.

Similarly, some power wheelchair users are disconcerted by real-time odometers, believing that their wheelchair's range is terrible, when it's really on par. Manufacturers have historically stated "idealized" battery range on power wheelchairs, quoting a rehab model with Group-24 batteries at 20 miles or more per charge. However, in "real-world" use, such a model typically gets 14 to 16 miles (or even less, based on very demanding conditions). What happens, then, is that a user who's spent years using a power wheelchair without an odometer, believing that it got 20 miles per charge, moves into a new model with a real-time odometer that only shows achieving 14 miles per charge - and assumes that the new model has less range than the last. The reality is, the previous model most likely traveled approximately 14 miles per charge, as well, but without an odometer, it was impossible to tell, so users naturally assumed it was 20 miles or more, as lead to believe.

In these ways, it's important for users of high-end, data-intensive electronics to realize that using newer technologies sometimes require a shift in perspective from assumptions to facts based on access to real-time data.

Understanding Environmental Control Features
While many high-end electronics offer "environmental control" features like infrared and bluetooth capabilities, it's often a more complex set-up than users realize. For example, in order to use a system's infrared capabilities (to operate appliances ranging from televisions to telephones via the power wheelchair's joystick), an additional module, programmer, and set-up is required. Therefore, while such environmental control capabilities featured on advanced power wheelchair electronics are remarkably liberating, consumers should be aware that they're not plug-and-play, and encompass additional expense and set-up.

From 8-Tracks to MP3s
Indeed, power wheelchair electronics have seemingly traveled light years during the evolution of the power wheelchair - from a metal joystick box with a single switch, to the system's of today with full color screens and streaming, real-time data. Sure, with recent technological advancements, some users who were used to the far more basic electronics of yesteryear continue getting up to speed on all of the information at their fingertips, literally. Yet, everyday, users are finding that once they realize the remarkable capabilities of today's high-end power wheelchair electronics - as well as become used to interpreting them - they have more control over their mobility than ever before.

Published 3/09, Copyright 2009, WheelchairJunkie.com