"It just seemed to me that the fundamental issue was the world has not been architected for people that are sitting down at 39 inches.”
- Dean Kamen
One of the many inventions of Dean Kamen, the iBOT is not a wheelchair. Dean stresses this carefully, perhaps with the same kind of indignation as Chris Rock, who in a stand-up routine about disabled people screams "Is this a joke? IS THIS A JOKE? I come to your hospital and I can't fucking walk no more, and you offer me a chair with wheels? That's the best you can do? A CHAIR?"
Apparently Dean was in the shower one day soon after the Pentium chip was brought out, wondering how he could use them. He'd already made a fortune and a reputation by inventing the portable kidney dialysis machine and intravascular 'stents' which hold blocked arteries open, and was casting around for a new area when he slipped and almost fell. Just like Archimedes, he had his little 'Eureka!' moment, when he realized that he could use Pentium chips to invent a personal transportation device which was self-balancing in the same way as his body was.
Enter the iBOT, which is less like a motorized wheelchair and more like a robot exoskeleton, like the one Stephen Hawking wears in the famous satirical article by The Onion. It has two pairs of medium-sized wheels capable of swivelling in virtually any direction. The iBOT will climb stairs or travel across sand. It will 'stand' on two wheels to allow its wearer to reach high shelves or switches. It will instantly recalculate its balance depending on the distribution of weight of both itself and its wearer - in other words, it is practically impossible to make it fall over, or to fall out of it. If the wearer picks up a heavy object on one side, the wheels swivel to shift the center of gravity as much as necessary. In fact, the wheels swivel so quickly that it can only be seen clearly in a slow-motion replay. To top it all off, the iBOT, weighing 200 pounds even without a passenger, easily beats a human athlete over 3000 feet of a hill climb.
The catch? Well, it's expensive. Not terribly expensive, but still, $25,000 is quite a lot of money. The other catch? Power. All those microprocessors consume a lot of energy, and Kamen himself has said that microprocessor technology needs to catch up with his inventions - half of the power used by the iBOT is wasted on idling Pentium chips, and it requires daily recharging of its batteries. The chips don't just control the iBOT's motion, they also control a failsafe routine which requires agreement between at least two out of three processors before any action is performed. Kamen doesn't mention whether he investigated any less power-hungry alternatives to the Intel Pentium chip - mkb suggests that Intel may have injected some cash into the project, but I can't find any confirmation for that.
The iBOT is being commercially developed by Indetech, a company funded by Johnson & Johnson, and is still pending approval by the FDA for safety, after which it may become available by prescription or private sale, but Kamen has already moved on to bigger and better things. His Segway human transporter is (apparently) set to revolutionise personal transport for everybody, not just physically challenged people. He says himself, "I don’t work on a project unless I believe that it will dramatically improve life for a bunch of people."