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High-tech lab CanAssist knows no bounds

Custom-made lawn mowers, bicycle as a video game controller just some of the innovative assistive technology creations in UVic lab
CanAssist engineering manager Leo Spalteholz peers through a camera module with adapted functions for people with limited mobility. Options automatically cycle through onscreen

If James Bond had a secret lab designing spy gadgets in Saanich, this would be it.

In theory, if 007 suffered permanent damage to his arm and needed an adapter to operate his favourite firearm, CanAssist could do make it happen – free of charge.

“We don’t copyright this stuff, anything anyone wants to learn from us, we try to share it,” says CanAssist electrical engineering specialist Paul Green. The team allows open access to their work when requested, Green adds.

As Green leads an informal walk through CanAssist’s impressive new work shop in the University of Victoria’s Centre for Sports, Recreation and Special Abilities, he points out one apparatus after another, each one spread out in pieces across the large table during development stage.

The wall-sized windows of the new CanAssist shop not only let in a refreshingly Hawaii’an amount of natural light. They also look directly across the parking lot at CanAssist’s former residence, E-Hut, the army-green coloured bunker that is symbolic of CanAssist’s first 16 years, and as a relic of the Second World War era Gordon Head military camp. Even CanAssist’s new office area in CARSA is bigger than E-Hut, but it’s the work shop that’s probably the coolest part of the new $77 million CARSA.

“You had to love E-Hut, but it was so small,” Green says of CanAssist’s former space. “We were cramped, literally fighting for every square inch of workspace.”

And yet from that little hut came hundreds of life changing projects for residents of Greater Victoria and B.C. And CanAssist is only growing.

Since 2011, the Ministry of Health has stepped up with $10.5 million in funding for CanAssist, including a $3 million commitment made on May 11 towards technologies that support the Ministry’s CanStayHome program.

“Everything we do is designed to make life easier for someone, often by allowing them to do something they couldn’t,” Green explains.

The organization’s mantra is to help people with disabilities improve their quality of life and to increase awareness of disability issues.

As he continues his tour, Green lifts his current project, a dismantled push lawn mower which will be attached to the front of a powered wheelchair. Next to that is a ‘captive knife’ setup that mounts a chef knife (with a stainless steel bracket on the blade) to a cutting board. The knife runs along a rod with sliding (sawing) motion, as well as up, down and side to side mobility.

The lawn mower attachment is for a local quadriplegic. The captive knife is ideal for someone with the use of one arm.

“There are captive knife systems out there, but we found fault with them in that they offered poor or no ability to slice,” Green says. “You couldn’t cut a tomato, for instance, and with ours you can.”

CanAssist works like this: Someone, be it WorkSafe BC, a local citizen or organization, brings a request and funding to CanAssist for a solution to a unique problem. CanAssist engineering manager Leo Spalteholz analyzes the problems and desired outcomes with other members of the team, which includes software, mechanical and electrical engineers.

“The first thing we often do is find out if a possible solution actually exists on the commercial market,” Spalteholz says. “The only problem is we often find the commercial option isn’t well made, either by design or quality, or both, and that there are several improvements we can make. So we go from there.”

The lawn mower is a good example. Green has dismantled a typical battery-powered push mower from the hardware store. It’s now been reduced to a bare minimum, with no handles and about half the size, with the plastic chassis surrounding the rotary blade and battery.

Attaching to the power chair wasn’t going to be the challenge. It’s figuring everything else, Green says.

“The user can engage the mower with a handheld button while he operates the power chair. If you let go of the button, the mower stops, so it replicates the safety bar that comes standard on store-bought models.”

(Below: CanAssist electrical engineering specialist Paul Green sits astride a modified MEC bicycle that is actually a video game controller. The steering, pedals and brakes each trigger controls for different games. An additional “thrust” button is located on the handlebars.)


As Green continues his tour, one of three CanAssist mechanics working in the expansive new shop points to a bicycle mounted on a stationary resistance trainer.

The bike is literally a giant video game controller.

“The bike request was interesting because it came from two separate doctors in the north of B.C., for two different patients who were in need of motivation for exercise, at the same time,” Green says.

While the bike is not dedicated to a particular video game, it currently works with (Microsoft) XBox and (Sony) Playstation, and PCs, and is probably best with racing or first person character games, Green added.

“We’ve designed it so you can map the buttons/controls to each function for a game.”

For example, the user can designate the left or right brake levers to shoot a gun, etc. Additional switches can be mounted on the handle bar. The most important function is a sensor that measures the amount of torque created from pedalling.

“The bike will correlate how hard you’re working and translate that to how fast you’re going in the game.”

Because Green and company never take anything lightly, the bike’s torque reading can be adjusted.

“You can make it easier or harder to pedal the bike to move the car or person you’re controlling faster.”

The CanAssist website lists 89 of their project technologies, free for the taking. Any apps they create are also free and posted to Android and/or iOS operating systems.

There are probably hundreds of additional accessories that aren’t listed, such as the many wheel and power chairs that have been fitted with a tool to assist people with limited mobility.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as creating a custom grip for a butcher knife that goes on top of the blade and allows him greater control, which he no longer had. We moulded the plastic grip to the shape of the user’s hand, because, why not?,” Green says.

It’s not uncommon for CanAssist employees to create new methods and technologies during each project, many of which could be patented.

But that is not the model.

Defying all temptations to monetize their efforts, CanAssist asks only to cover its costs, thereby flying in the face of capitalism. In a world of corporate espionage, B.C. can sigh a breath of relief that the people of CanAssist are using their powers for good.