A key aspect of Spletzer's chair will be making it affordable. He points out that Freedom Sciences is able to sell its ATRS because that product's cost is comparable with that of purchasing a van or SUV and revamping it to allow a person to drive while seated in the wheelchair, as most wheelchair drivers now do. To get beyond the prototype phase with their smart wheelchair, Spletzer and his team will have to figure out how to get it to move autonomously without having to rely on the expensive LiDAR system that Little Ben used but rather on a combination of lower cost LiDAR and sonar sensors.
Of course, Spletzer and his colleagues are not the only ones who have come up with the idea of a smart wheelchair. A paper published in the December 1999 IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering describes a NavChair Assistive Wheelchair Navigation System (pdf) developed at the time to reduce the "cognitive and physical requirements of operating a power wheelchair for people with wide ranging impairments that limit their access to powered mobility." The NavChair was based on a commercial wheelchair system with the addition of a DOS-based computer system, ultrasonic sensors and an interface module interposed between the joystick and power unit .
Two more recent projects share nearly the same name: The Robochair project at the University of the Basque Country's Laboratory of Human–Computer Interaction for Special Needs in Spain is creating an autonomous navigation system that can be added to commercially available powered wheelchairs. In 2007 researchers at the University of Essex in England pursued a similar project called RoboChair (pdf).
Yet, whereas others have demonstrated that smart wheelchairs can work, they have yet to make them affordable for the large population of users (2.7 million people age 15 and older in the U.S. alone). "The ultimate goal is to develop a smart-chair system capable of unprecedented levels of autonomy while still being commercially viable," Spletzer says.