By Dan Wang
John B. Hinkel III wants to improve the mobility of quadriplegics. So he designed a device that he considers a significant improvement over anything else in the marketplace. And now, the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office has moved Hinkel one step closer to his goal by publishing his patent proposal.
The process started when he was a student at Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts. In his junior year, Hinkel developed a mouse that could be controlled by head movements and presented it at the Massachusetts State Science Fair. A panel of judges awarded him the 1st place prize. He developed the idea further and won 1st place again in his senior year. This time, his prize came with the pro bono patent services of a prominent legal office. By the end of senior year, Hinkel developed the idea and submitted an application to the U.S. Patent Office.
So what is the invention? Hinkel has developed a device that allows paraplegics to control their wheelchairs with gentle head movements. He gives a new way for people with severe spinal injuries to be mobile. Consisting of a headset connected wirelessly to a joystick, Hinkel’s device can be integrated to guide any motorized wheelchair.
“My evaluation of all the other devices was that they are cumbersome and not very user-friendly,” says Hinkel ’14, now a double-major in computer science and Spanish. “So, I decided to design a better device.”
Indeed, his invention is a considerable improvement over other products currently in the marketplace. One available product is the “Sip-and-Puff” which allows users to control their wheelchairs by blowing through a “wand” placed in front of their faces. Another device coordinates the wheelchair through a magnet implanted in the tongue.
Professor Henry Kautz, chair of the department of computer science, is a fan of the project. “John is extraordinary among our ordinarily extraordinary students. Quite a few of our undergraduates are doing original research — but not so many started in high school,” he says. “I’ll look forward to seeing him do even bigger things over the next couple of years!”
Having his proposal published does not mean that his patent has been approved, although it’s very close. Hinkel will need to go through one final approval process before he can be awarded with a patent. Asked what he’d like to do with the rights to his invention, Hinkel admits that he hasn’t thought that far. “I could start a business, or sell the idea to another company. There are a lot of possibilities.”
Hinkel will learn by April 2013 whether the U.S. Patent Office will award him with a full patent.
Article written by Dan Wang, a junior at Rochester, who studies philosophy and economics. Photo courtesy of John Hinkel.