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The Hardware and Software Performance Model - Erik Kondo

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Take a moment to think about performing something your can do really well. See yourself doing it. Now, think of a person you know who can do it better than you. What is the difference? Why is this person's performance level of the activity higher than yours? 

Let's deconstruct it. It is likely that the other person's capability is better than yours in terms of both his or her "Hardware" and "Software", or possibly, one or the other.

“The terms Hardware and Software are nothing other than a conceptual model that divides a person into two parts. A person's Hardware is his or her anatomical body and any mechanical aids that replace or assist his or her body's functions. On the other hand, Software refers to a person's psychology and changes neurology due to life experiences.”

Clearly, this model is derived from computers. The output performance of a personal computer results from the integrated combination of the computer's hardware and software. A computer with high capability hardware is limited by it's operating system and installed software. But a computer with minimal hardware capability will not perform at a high level regardless of it's software. Therefore, the obvious solution to increasing performance is to enhance a computer and a person's hardware and software equally. 

For humans increases in performance are more likely to occur in a stair-step fashion rather than in giant leaps and bounds. Most people see increases in their performance as tied to their Hardware. They think that being stronger, faster, taller, more intelligent is the key to higher performance. And they are correct, but only on a limited basis. At any given time, most people are not using their existing Hardware to it's greatest potentially anyway. Therefore, further increases in Hardware will result in under utilization of their Hardware due to the limits of their Software. What they really need is to increase their Software in order to maximize their Hardware. Once this equilibrium of performance has been achieved, stepping up their Hardware makes sense.

Society sees people with disabilities as having primary a Hardware problem. The thinking is that if you solve the Hardware problem, you have solved the entire problem. And in certain cases, this thinking makes sense. For example, replacing an amputee's limb with an artificial one is an effective Hardware solution. The high technology prosthesis of today enables mobility well behind the wooden legs of yesteryear. 

But not all disabilities can be solved in the same manner. A wheelchair user due to paralysis of the spinal cord is not the same as an amputee even if they both use wheelchairs.  A person with SCI is not missing a body part that needs to be replaced. His or her body parts are not working (in various degrees) below the level of spinal cord injury. This person needs an additional mobility device that provides mobility for the entire person, not a replacement for part of the person. 

Using a car analogy, a car that is missing a wheel, needs a new wheel to continue functioning. But a car whose control system is completely severed from the wheels needs a flat bed truck to carry the car. This flatbed truck now becomes the primary mobility device of the Severed Car. Whereas, the car with the new wheel, is back to it's original method of mobility. If the wheel is made of wood, the car will perform poorer, but it still drives. Upgrade the wooden wheel to a high tech wheel and the car is now as good or better than new. On the other hand, replacing the flat bed truck with a newer model will improve the overall mobility of the Severed Car, but the car still no longer drives, it is carried.

The driver of the Severed Car needs to learn to drive a Flat Bed Truck. His or her previous car driving skills don't matter. What matters now is how well he or she can drive the Truck. If he or she never obtains a high level of skill driving the Truck, upgrading the Truck to a better performing model will not change the root issue. In this scenario, the Truck is Hardware and the driver's skill is the Software.

In the case of an amputee with a prosthesis, the very act of walking and using it translates to an increase in Software ability. The more the person pushes and tests his or her mobility, the more his/her Software is automatically developed. But wheelchairs are different. The mentality behind traditional wheelchair use is to disregard Software and focus only on Hardware. Mobility is only thought of only in terms of developing better Hardware. In fact, many designers feel that the goal of better Hardware is to replace the need for Software. 

For example, Wheelie Prevention Bars are a Hardware solution to the problem of flipping over backwards in a wheelchair. A Software solution would be to develop the awareness and balance skill required to not flip over, in the same manner that bicycle riders don't fall over the majority of the time. But what about the people who can't safely learn this skill? I think, they should have Wheelie Prevention Bars, just like the people who can't ride a bicycle should ride a tricycle. The difference is that most able-bodied people are encouraged to learn to ride a bicycle. Whereas, many active wheelchair users are encouraged to install Wheelie Prevention Bars regardless of their capability to learn wheelie skills.

Not all lower limb amputees will be able to run, but that hasn't stopped the advancement and encouragement of running prostheses. In a nut shell, improvements to Hardware for amputees lead naturally to improvements in the person's Software. Conversely, many improvements in wheelchair Hardware diminish the user's Software. Therefore, the "rules" of mobility advancement which apply to amputees don't necessarily apply to a person with spinal cord injury.

Improving mobility performance of wheelchair users will require simultaneous improvements of their Hardware and Software. In order to do so, the medical community and designers need to acknowledge the existence and importance of Software, not just Hardware.


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