UCF students create wheelchair tech that responds to facial expressions

Instead of taking a final exam, a group of college students invented technology allowing quadriplegics to maneuver their wheelchairs easily and affordably.

A wink, a grin, even a frown – usually they’re just expressions of how we’re feeling.

But thanks to a group of enterprising college students, one of those facial expressions is all it takes now for quadriplegics to steer their wheelchairs.

Charlie Merritt’s reality shattered in an instant on a sunny August day in 2014 when he broke his neck diving into shallow water.

“I remember floating in the water, face down, basically feeling like I was going to drown,” Merritt said.

Paralyzed from the neck down, the former marine has been able to get around with the help of his wife and an expensive motorized wheelchair.

But enterprising mechanical engineering students at the University of Central Florida had a better idea.

“Since we’re all students at first, it’s a little scary because we see this device that we made being used by somebody," UCF mechanical engineering major Joey Teblum said. "But then when we see it works perfectly, pretty much flawlessly, it’s an amazing feeling.”

The students created a 3D device that controls wheelchairs with simple facial movements.

Sensors attached to muscles send electrical ‘commands’ to direct Charlie’s chair.

“For people to just put it on and within five minutes it’s barely a learning curve for most, and just control it like they’re using a joy stick with their hands," fellow engineering student Christian Rodriguez said.

“For me, it gives me not only a sense of independence, but also that I’m not burdening the people around me to have to use their assistance,” Merritt said.

Unlike other disability devices, the college senior design project, which is not yet being mass produced, is very affordable.

The device will cost less than $4,000, compared to several thousand for similar designs.

It only took a year for the students to take the idea and turn it into reality.

The design and technology come from Limbitless Solutions, a non-profit student group of University of Central Florida students. In 2014, the group unveiled and distributed $350 3D bionic arms for children at no cost.

To read the research summary for today's story, click here.