Wireless Power Chair Puts a New Spin on Dance

6:24 minutes

For about a decade, Merry Lynn Morris, the assistant director of the University of South Florida’s dance program, has been developing a power wheelchair for dancers, with the goal of exploring new movement possibilities. Her invention is a smartphone-controlled chair that can glide in any direction in response to subtle movement cues from the user. Science Friday web managing editor Julie Leibach shares the story of this graceful device, and why dancers of all abilities might find it exciting. Read our article for more.

Segment Guests

Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is a freelance science journalist and the former managing editor of online content for Science Friday.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: If you’re someone who needs a mobility device to get around, like a wheelchair, and you’re also a dancer, you might already have heard of the rolling dance chair. It’s one of the first power chairs that is omnidirectional and smartphone-guided. In other words, it goes sideways and forward and backwards and slantwise all with just the lean of your body or the tilt of your smartphone.

Julie Leibach, Sci Fri’s Online Managing Editor, wrote an article about the chair and how dancers are using it. Also our Sci Art’s video team ventured to the University of South Florida to meet the chair’s creator. And you can see both on our website, sciencefriday.com/dancechair. Julie’s here to tell the story and explain what makes this chair so exciting for folks in the Arts and disability communities. Hi Julie.


IRA FLATOW: So give us the truth. What’s going on here? This is interesting. Why is this dancer and why did she want to develop a new kind of chair?

JULIE LEIBACH: OK, so the inventor’s name is Merry Lynn Morris. And she’s actually a choreographer and the Assistant Director of the dance program at the University of South Florida. And as you would imagine, she’s been dancing for as long as she can remember. So that was a bit of an influence.

But she had a few formative experiences in her life that inspired her to start thinking about making a chair like this. So when she was 12, her dad got into a bad car accident. And it left him with brain damage and reliant on a wheelchair. And so observing her dad use his wheelchair, she realized that it wasn’t exactly user-friendly.

So a few years later, when she was working at USF, in 2001, she started collaborating with dancers with disabilities. And many of them, while they might not have had mobility in their lower body, they had some mobility in their upper body. And so at this point, Merry Lynn started thinking about mobility devices as interfaces between human beings.

And so she really wanted to build a chair that could explore new types of movement. So for Merry Lynn, it’s all about movement. Dance is movement.

[? IRA FLATOW: It’s the dance in her. ?]

JULIE LEIBACH: So she applied for a grant, got it in 2006, and worked with the engineering department at USF on what she calls a rough draft concept of the chair. And then, after that, she hired a professional team, a small team– a programmer and a designer and a fabricator. And they came out with this prototype, which is the one that you see in the article in the Sci Arts video that we did. And that came out in 2013.

IRA FLATOW: And that video, she shared some of the reasons why the chair excites her so much.

MERRY LYNN MORRIS: Freedom of expression, creating new movement possibilities, you know, that’s what we’re always sort of exploring in dance. There’s a tendency with disability for folks to think of the tragedy or the challenge, and that’s not where the emphasis should be but to also recognize that there’s a lot of innovative potential. And there’s a lot of opportunity.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, public radio international. I’m Ira Flatow with Julie Leibach. So this dancer, Merry Lynn, she’s super excited about it. Watch the video. I mean your experience, writing the article.

JULIE LEIBACH: Yeah, I think she was. She’s been working on this for a while, over 10 decades at least. Oh, I’m sorry, over 10 years at least. That’d be a really long time. A lot of devotion there.

IRA FLATOW: It feels like 10 decades.

JULIE LEIBACH: It might sometimes.

IRA FLATOW: But what I found from watching the video is how the chair can do everything. And she can you move it like just by thinking about it almost. But–

JULIE LEIBACH: Yeah, so here’s some of the salient features of this chair. If you look at it, you’ll notice, it’s a stylish power chair. It looks kind of futuristic. It has this clear seat.

This is all by design because remember this thing is for dance, it’s for performing, so it’s got to look good. But it’s also got to function. It’s got to move in all sorts of directions like dancers do.

So one of the interesting things about this chair is, as you mentioned in the intro, it’s omnidirectional. So manual wheelchairs and most power chairs cannot move diagonally. This chair can move diagonally. It can move forwards, backwards, side to side. It can pirouette as it were.

And it can also raise up vertically. And the chair can spin independently of the base. So already you see there’s all these movement possibilities.

But the interesting thing, I think, is the way that it’s controlled. So the general public is probably familiar with the standard power chair that’s operated by a joystick or maybe a straw like what Christopher Reeve used. Well, this chair is controlled wirelessly through a portable control, which happens to be a cell phone.

So Merry Lynn’s team tapped into the motion sensing technology that’s in a phone. And so how does that work? Well, a person who’s sitting in the chair might either hold the phone or they will strap it to a mobile part of their body. And when they lean subtly in a certain direction, the sensors in the phone will pick up on their positional data, gets cleaned up in an algorithm, and then relayed to the base of the chair where the brains are. And the chair follows suit.

So basically if you lean a little, the chair follows. And it all looks very seamless to the spectator.

IRA FLATOW: And I imagine not only dancers, there’s a great future for dancers. But what about everybody else who needs a chair?

JULIE LEIBACH: Right. So while Mary Lynn was thinking about using this chair for dance, she’s also been thinking about how it could be used in everyday life. And I mentioned how it will move up and down. Well, you can move it up so that a person sitting in the chair is at eye level with someone who’s standing, which is, think about it, it’s very important for social interactions.

IRA FLATOW: And so we’ll be watching the video. It’s great. Thanks for a great article, Julie.

JULIE LEIBACH: Please sciencefriday.com/dancechair.

IRA FLATOW: And there it is.

JULIE LEIBACH: And you can read the article and watch the Sci Arts video.

IRA FLATOW: Julie Leibach is Science Friday’s Online Managing Editor. Thank you, Julie.


IRA FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

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