CanAssist engineering manager Leo Spalteholz peers through a camera module with adapted functions for people with limited mobility. Options automatically cycle through onscreen

CanAssist engineering manager Leo Spalteholz peers through a camera module with adapted functions for people with limited mobility. Options automatically cycle through onscreen

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

  • Jun. 12, 2015 8:00 p.m.

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.

Just Posted

Hot rods, rad rods, muscle and sports cars spanning the decades made their way in a parade from North Saanich to Victoria on June 19. (Kiernan Green/News Staff)
PHOTOS: Classic cars cruise Saanich Peninsula in advance of Father’s Day

Retirement home residents from North Saanich to Victoria treated to a spectacle of hot rides

A bathtub kitchen garden is part of the lineup for this year’s Teeny Tiny Garden Tour to benefit Victoria Hospice. (Screenshot/Teeny Tiny Garden Tour)
Virtual garden tour for Victoria Hospice features trio of back yards

Online tour is free; calendar purchase and donation options raise money for the cause

Al Kohut, owner of the new photographers GALLERY, checks out Looking Back by David Bradt. The photo printed on canvas is among 50 images featured in the Birds on the Wild Side exhibition showing until July 3. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Photo gallery in Sidney plucks out top bird photos

Birds on the Wild Side show running at the new photographers GALLERY until July 3

The Town of Sidney supports efforts to rename Reay Creek to KELSET, its traditional SENCOTEN name. (Black Press Media file photo)
Town of Sidney signs off on Reay Creek name change to KELSET

Name change does not affect surrounding parkland, but public supports doing so

Steve Mann and Tim Hackett consider Marigold Lands their finest development. (Rendering courtesy Marigold Lands)
Marigold residences grow more townhouses and condos in Central Saanich

50 condos, 14 townhouses up next for project adjacent to Pat Bay Highway

Jesse Roper tackles weeds in his garden to kick off the 2021 season of What’s In My Garden Man? (YouTube/Whats In My Garden)
VIDEO: Metchosin singer-songwriter Jesse Roper invites gardeners into his plot

What’s In My Garden, Man? kicks off with the poop on compost

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Most Read