A local veteran paralyzed from the waist down can now get around on his own just by moving his face.
Charlie Merritt got to use his new, first-of-its-kind wheelchair at the University of Central Florida on Tuesday. Merritt is a U.S. Marine former power-lifting champion. But when a diving accident less than a year ago left him paralyzed, he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to get around on his own without other people’s help.
“Having that ability to just be mobile is the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Merritt.
On Tuesday morning, Merritt took off down the sidewalks and streets of the UCF campus in a wheelchair designed by UCF students. The wheelchair responds to facial movements.
UCF researchers say the wheelchair works by harnessing the electronic signals sent from a person’s brain to their muscles when they make a facial expression. Sensors attached to Merritt’s face intercept those signals, and send them to the wheelchair to make it move.
“The right side of your jaw to go right, the left side of your jaw to go left,” said Merritt. “I’m part of the video game generation so I got that down.”
The same group of UCF students teamed up with the non-profit Limbitless Solutions to create and fit children like Alex Pring with bionic arms. The unique partnership allows the group to come up with brand new devices never seen before.
“There are not a lot of organizations willing to put forth the effort to innovate for spinal-cord injuries,” said Merritt.
But the group’s main focus isn’t making money. The contraption that now allows Charlie to move around only costs a few hundred dollars, which is less than half what it could cost if produced in the private sector.
“We’re out to help people. To allow disabled people to regain control and gain independence,” said Christin Rodriguez, a design engineer for Limbitless Solutions.
Limbitless Solutions hopes to develop the technology enough to help other veterans and other people around the country with similar spinal-cord injuries by matching them with similar devices.