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Reto, the Wheelchair Designer (Part 2)

We tested Reagiro, the backrest steering manual wheelchair

We tested Reagiro, the backrest steering manual wheelchair

My first ever wheelchair ride, which I still rely much on both hands to operate the Reagiro.

Who doesn’t like the feeling of freedom? It was one friend in wheelchair sharing with Reto his fantasy of controlling the chair like a skateboard that inspired the creation of Reagiro, the backrest steering manual wheelchair.

Now let’s continue to find out more about this unique wheelchair.

In part 1 of this blog series, we shared how the Community team got connected to wheelchair designer Reto Togni (retogni), and eventually met him at Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Nottwil.

Reto brought along the prototype of the Reagiro to the visit. Johannes and I were honored to have a go with this first backrest steering manual wheelchair in the world. How did it feel?

Had a go with the Reagiro

This was indeed my first ride on a wheelchair, so not only was the Reagiro new to me but everything about the wheelchair ride! In between excitement and nervousness, I got on the Reagiro and asked, “what should I do now?” I tried to figure out how I can start up the wheelchair with my back – completely forgetting that it’s a manual wheelchair, so at least one hand is needed to start up the wheelchair.

With the expert tips from Reto, I quickly managed to run and steer the wheelchair with my back. I even had one hand free for a selfie. ;)

What to do with the free hand while riding the Reagiro? How about a selfie? ;)

A steep learning curve

So, my first ride with the Reagiro was a success; however, I felt myself rather rigid operating the wheelchair with my back. When I reviewed the photos of my ride with the Reagiro, I realized that I still operated it with both hands most of the time. Wasn’t that totally missing the pleasure of riding a manual wheelchair with one hand free? Is it just me or is this a problem for other users who have tried the Reagiro as well?

Indeed, Reto told me that my experience is a rather common situation for those who have tried the Reagiro. So far there are no wheelchair users who have tried the Reagiro for so many times that they get to a point where the Reagiro ride actually feels fluent and natural.

Then how can a user operate the Reagiro as smooth as Reto did in the above video? What are the tricks behind? It’s certainly more than “practice makes perfect”. Reto pointed out,

“the more experienced a wheelchair user is, the more unconventional it is for them to operate the Reagiro.”

During the trial rides, quite a number of users expressed their struggles with the Reagiro at the beginning. Reto shared that these users were normally not so clear about the mechanism of operating the Reagiro and took them quite a while to get used to it. “The learning curve is pretty steep”, Reto described.

More customization and trainings are needed to enable users to operate the Reagiro with one hand free.

The challenge of habit breaking

In comparison, Johannes has slightly more experience in a wheelchair than me. However, he also expressed the weirdness he felt using the Reagiro, mostly because he needed to trust his body to steer its wheels before he would hit a wall. After some minutes on the Reagiro, Johannes gained more confidence and felt able to steer it much better. He was convinced that one could get used to Reagiro’s backrest steering mechanism rather fast.

Reto shared that the intuition to use both hands instead of the upper body to steer is indeed very common, especially for people with higher levels of injury. Wheelchair users are in general more dependent on back rest to keep their body stable. Hence, it could be more challenging for them to adapt to Reagiro’s backrest steering mechanism.

However, Reto pointed out that flexibility and movement don’t necessarily go against stability. Realizing most wheelchair users depend on their back to stabilize themselves in wheelchair, Reto now aims at modifying the Reagiro in a way that makes the user feel stable and at the same time still allows more freedom in movement. With such a design, users will hopefully use different parts of the body to run the wheelchair and receive therapeutic benefits through the ride.

Reagiro: the expert review

During Reto’s visit, we had a tour at Orthotec, a company at Swiss Paraplegic Centre which offers a variety of services to people with disability. On that day, Markus Anderhub showed us around the workshop where wheelchairs are built, modified and customized.

Reto visited the Orthotec wheelchair workshop at Swiss Paraplegic Centre for the very first time.

Markus is a wheelchair user with incomplete paraplegia (L2-3). With rich experiences in assistive devices, he joined Orthotec as assistive device consultant earlier this year. We invited Markus to try the Reagiro. Here’s how it went:

During the Orthotec tour, Markus offered Reto tips on how to further improve the Reagiro.

Markus liked the backrest steering concept of the Reagiro. However, he stated that the current Reagiro is still far from being suitable for outdoor use. He pointed out that there are many safety issues of the Reagiro which Reto has to consider. For example, modification is needed to minimize the risk of overturning. Reto agreed with Markus and, in fact, is already aware of and planning to tackle the stability issues of the Reagiro.

Reagiro: the next stage

The Reagiro prototype has come into the world for over a year now. What’s next?

Reto excitedly shared with us his next move: his PhD studies at ETH Zurich. He now continues the Reagiro project at the Laboratory for Movement Biomechanics of the Department of Health Sciences and Technology. And more good news: his project is now funded by Küschall, the renowned wheelchair manufacturing company in Switzerland.

During his PhD studies, Reto will continue to explore the potentials of the Reagiro: whether its backrest steering mechanism can stimulate users’ core muscles, get circulation going or even train the sense of balance, other than just being a mobility aid.

A chance in the market for the Reagiro?

The Reagiro seems to have a potential to become a popular wheelchair. When will it be available on the market?

Although Küschall is interested to bring something like the Reagiro to market, there is not a concrete deadline for that. Reto shared,

“It’s really hard to go from some kind of research project, university or design studio to a prototype level. It’s really hard to take it from there to an actual product and then make it available to those that might need it. There are so many nice concepts lying in drawers that never make it to the market.”

Will there be a place for the Reagiro in the wheelchair market?

One of the biggest challenges for any designer or engineer is having the perseverance to bring their design or product to market. Now with Küschall funding the project, Reto can focus on modifying the Reagiro to meet better users’ needs.

About modifying the Reagiro, Reto knows he still has much to do. Indeed, he wonders at what point he will stop modifying the Reagiro because he thinks one can always change for the better. At the moment, he will focus on the feedback he got and continue with more trials and discussions on the Reagiro with various wheelchair users, engineers and health professionals.

“I think it takes many other things to actually introduce the Reagiro into someone’s life for good. Hopefully I’m getting these things right.”

The Community wishes Reto and his Reagiro project the best of luck! We look forward to seeing more user-centered designers like Reto and innovative assistive device like the Reagiro introduced onto the market. We will continue to follow up here on the Community with Reto on the development of the Reagiro. Stay tuned.

Got ideas or comments for the Reagiro project? We would be happy to hear your expert opinion!

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