University of Central Florida’s Limbitless Solutions is moving forward with its patented hands-free wheelchair technology.

The technology allows patients with limited mobility to use their facial muscles to control their wheelchairs. This is done using electromyography sensors that are placed on a patient’s temporalis muscles to control a wheelchair or vehicle. When a user clenches their jaw, the wheelchair will respond by moving in the designated direction.

After publishing the results of their first clinical study of the technology in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, the team will begin on-campus testing of the new training video game.

“The technology has the potential to unlock mobility independence for certain patients,” says Limbitless Solutions president and co-founder Albert Manero ’12 ’14MS ’16PhD. “We are hopeful to complete further clinical trials on the equipment before working with a wheelchair provider to integrate with their available devices.”

The recent clinical study showed that independent steering was capable for patients who did not have hand function, and positive impressions of the technology were found for patients who had no independent control over their mobility.

Four ALS patients, age 51 to 69, were enrolled in the study. All had impairment of hand function that limited use of the standard wheelchair joystick control. The patients were assessed based on their ability to navigate a wheelchair skills course and their impressions of the new technology in comparison to their current controls.

Limbitless Solutions has been collaborating with Mayo Clinic to evaluate the technology’s readiness since 2019.

A key component to the next phase of the work is improving training for the patients to learn how to operate the hands-free technology. The team’s game design students and faculty have been developing a training game that enables practicing the driving commands in a low-stress virtual environment.

The training game is operated through the electromyography sensor control in combination with eye tracking software for hands-free calibration. This combination was designed with the intent of increasing the patient’s impression of autonomy.

A philanthropic grant from the Pabst Steinmetz Foundation was awarded to enable the interdisciplinary research team to develop the virtual training game, called Limbitless Journey, specifically for wheelchair users. Since 2016, UCF associate professors Matt Dombrowski ’05 ’08MFA with the School of Visual Arts & Design and Peter Smith ’05 ’12 PhD with Nicholson School of Communication and Media have been creating video games for gamified training to support children learning to control Limbitless Solutions’ bionic arms.

“It is very inspiring to see faculty and students from various disciplines in the arts and sciences at UCF collaborate to create these gamified experiences,” says Dombrowski. “It truly showcases how UCF leads the charge to create a more positive and inclusive tomorrow.”

Smith says they wanted to develop a safe environment for practice.

“They don’t have to worry about losing control or bumping into physical obstacles when they’re playing the training game,” he says. “Then once they gain enough confidence in their skills, we can advance to the next level of training.”

Limbitless Solutions also partners with hospitals nationally to conduct clinical trials evaluating the functionality and the effect of its upper-limb prosthetics on quality of life, how children’s brains develop using prosthetics and the role of video game-based training for learning more complex bionic controls.

Founded in 2014, Limbitless Solutions is a nonprofit and direct support organization at UCF dedicated to increasing accessibility and empowering children and adults in the limb difference community.

Manero received his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in aerospace engineering from UCF. He joined UCF’s Office of Research in 2017 and holds courtesy research appointments in UCF’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department and Mayo Clinic’s neurology department. He is also a member of UCF’s Biionix research cluster.