08 November 2010

It's All in My Head

I've been using the head array control to drive my wheelchair for a couple of weeks now, and I know you're just dying to hear how it's working.


OK. Most people will never need to know this. Even people with MS will probably never need to know this. I sure as heck didn't figure that I ever would. But in the unlikely event that you should go looking for information about using a head array -- what the equipment looks like, and how you use it to steer a power chair -- I can tell you from experience that there isn't much of anything out there. Besides, Herrad at Access Denied was curious about how it works and how it looks. So, here:

This is the head array control installed on my power chair. There is a switch installed in each of the three sections of the headrest. Touching the headrest lightly activates the switch in that section. All the rest is software.

The way my chair is currently set up, touching the center section of the headrest makes the chair go forward. Touching a side section makes the chair pivot that direction. Touching the center and a side section simultaneously makes the chair veer to that side. 

Unlike a joystick, where the distance and direction you move the stick controls where you go and how fast, each of these switches is either on or off. To change speed, reverse direction, or control other chair functions (tilt, recline, etc.), you select options from menus on a control unit.

If you could see this better, you could see that it displays battery status and whether the chair is moving or on standby (duh). It also shows which speed profile is selected, and whether the chair is going forward or backward. Each of the five speed profiles is preset to accelerate, travel, turn, and decelerate at a selected speed. To change speed, you go back to the menu and choose a different profile. The profiles are configurable, but the wheelchair tech is probably the only one who has the software to do it.

This is just one example of a head array control set up. There are head arrays with more switches, fewer switches, or different kinds of switches. Newer control units are a lot cooler, but my three-year-old chair is too old to be compatible with them. The software is pretty much totally customizable.

So what's it like to use?

It takes some getting used to. You'd expect that it takes practice to direct the chair where you want to go, and that's true. It does. And you might expect that your neck gets sore, because you're using it in unaccustomed ways. That's true too. You might even expect that you need to make sure the power is off before you rest your head on the head rest. Unfortunately, I keep forgetting to do this. And it's surprising how often you need to look at the display to see if you're going to go forward or backward. And it's surprising how often I forget to do this, too. It's not nearly as convenient or intuitive as a joystick. It seems like I'm always having to stop and dink around with a menu to change a setting.

Still, I have better control with the head array now than I have had for a long time using a joystick. Although it took forever and cost a lot, I've caught up with the Red Queen again. For a while.


  1. Seattle is not big on medical mobility supplies. Still shocks me. Glad you found one that suits you. ROLL ON!

  2. Wow, seems pretty complicated. I could see myself leaning my head back on the head rest and zooming right down the stairs or into a wall. Yikes!

    I am glad that you have found it better than your joystick model.

    And thanks for writing about it, I found it very interesting and informative.


  3. Hi Zoomdoggie,
    Thanks for the pictures ande explanation about your head array which sounds very good.

  4. Well, it certainly looks less complicated than it sounds. I'd been envisioning something akin to Medusa or early hair perm machines. But, ack, I know I'd lean back with the power on and slam a wall or wipe out a dog.

    I'm surprised the sides aren't closer in. Looks like you've got to have a fair bit of neck ROM as well as strength. Bet that is a work-out. So, to change speed you have to change to a different profile -- am guessing you need someone else to do that?

    Thanks for sharing. Sorry you've had to move on to this next level but glad you're managing the learning curve fairly well.


  5. I am stll waiting for the race video ;)

    Good that you are getting the hang of it. Modern technology can be our friend - unless it is a mouse LOL

  6. OMG! If Patti had such a control and started laughing her head would be spinning that chair in so many directions and causing so much chaos she may never stop laughing.

    Caregivingly Yours, Patrick