Panasonic has developed a robotic bed that transforms into a wheelchair at the command of the user. It's designed for people who have limited mobility and is intended to provide an extra level of independence.
When lying in the bed the user can summon the robot's computer system by simply calling out "robotic bed." In a demonstration at the International Home Care and Rehabilitation Exhibition in Tokyo this week, that elicited the answer,"Yes, what may I do for you."
Users can demand that the robotic mechanism lower or raise the head or foot of the bed or make the complete transformation into a wheelchair.
When the user asks for the wheelchair, the sides of the mattress, which is divided into several pieces, move away so the resulting chair is narrower than the entire bed. The user's back and head are raised as are the feet and the central part of the bed gently slides out to the side. The feet then fall and the back and head rise some more so that the user ends up in a comfortable sitting position.
The resulting wheelchair resembles the sort of seat you might see in business class on an aircraft and is fully robotic itself. A joystick on the right armrest can be used to control the wheelchair's movement.
"It took us a year from the start of development to showing it here today," said Yukio Honda, a visiting professor from Osaka Electro-Communication University who is working at Panasonic's Robot Development Center.
Before following each voice command the wheelchair checks to make sure the action that it understood is indeed the one desired. The user must affirm with a "yes" before the bed carries out the command.
In the wheelchair mode it can also detect people and obstacles in its way to safely guide the user around them.
In building the bed Panasonic sought to fit as much IT into it as possible.
An LCD touch-panel is located on a canopy that sits above the bed and means the user can watch TV, connect to the Internet, check home security cameras or make video calls from the bed.
"Even if you are lying in bed you can keep in touch with your family in another room," said Honda.
The wheelchair is capable of automatically docking with the bed. It just needs to be brought close and a button pushed for the procedure to begin.
Panasonic is planning to test the bed in several care homes both in Japan and overseas but there remains a legal obstacle before it can become a product. Safety standards and laws concerning home-help robots are yet to be considered in many countries so until they are codified, and manufacturer liability limited, the bed will likely remain off the market.