The confluence of a growing elderly population and a booming robotics industry has made Japan the world leader in mobility innovations. I've written about the Winglet from Sony and the Walking Assist Device from Honda, both designed to make getting around easier for older people who need a hand. Then I saw the U3-XÂ unicycle last week and now have this nagging feeling that maybe they've gone too far.
Sure, the specs are impressive. The one wheel is made up of many wheels which can change direction. The user leans in the direction they want to go (like a Segway) and the unicycle goes without using any turn ratio, forward and backward, to the side, or even diagonally. Cool. But...
It's hard to see how a unicycle can help the mobility-impaired. The user would have to have a normal sense of balance, which is not a given for a mobility-impaired user. The seat on the U3-X is a little higher than a person's waist, so you have to hop up to sit on it. The advantage is that the user can look standing people in the eye. But just getting there is above and beyond what a mobility-impaired person can do. And have you seen the size of the seat? Think about the people who use the motorized carts at your local supermarket, and imagine them trying to balance on the U3-X. Unless it's a market in Japan.
So how will this machine really be useful to the elderly and mobility-impaired? First, put a wide bucket seat on it, lower it, add a basket for the stuff you want to take with you, widen the wheel base for stability... and then realize you've just redesigned the basic Jazzy.
Still, I wouldn't mind finding a U3-X under my tree this Christmas. It could be a lot of fun! There's no word on when, or even if, this machine will be available to the public.