Space & Innovation

Weird Walking Machine Moves Between Floors

This unusual system is a cool, efficient way to skip the stairs.

This Dutch human-powered prototype falls somewhere between a fireman's pole and an old-timey elevator. It also looks far more inviting than either as an efficient way to move between floors.

A team at the Rombout Frieling Lab in Eindhoven came up with the novel "vertical walking" system in response to aging urban populations. The push to take advantage of vertical spaces in cities inevitably exacerbates mobility challenges. Arguing that elevators require too much power and stairs turn into bottlenecks, the group designed a low-impact rig dubbed Vertiwalk.

Led by principal engineering designer Rombout Frieling, Vertiwalk is an assisted human-powered system. It consists of two parallel vertical rails that house wooden seating components and a pulley setup. The separate wooden seating sections, which kind of resemble a chairlift, are linked together by stretchy cords. The sections slide up and down the rails as the person makes small movements.

Just pushing the wood underneath the feet slightly and pulling on vertical plastic tubes with both hands allows the person to move easily. It only takes 10 percent of the physical effort required to take the stairs, according to the designers.

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"This prototype has been successfully tested by a wide range of users," the Vertiwalk online description said. That included a woman named Angelica who has multiple sclerosis and a Nigerian amputee named Abiodun. Young workers in an office tower who tried out Vertiwalk found it "incredibly cool," the team added.

Rock climbers have long taken advantage of rope rigs and equipment to make a purely vertical ascension easier. The technique, called jugging or jumaring, was awkward and slow as hell the one time I tried it outside a building in Massachusetts. But it can really come in handy, especially for hauling gear up a sheer cliff.

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Watching the Vertiwalk video demos also made me think of how much smoother and faster their system seems than a motorized stairlift. A quick search revealed that those stairlifts tend to cost well over $1,000, require electricity or a battery for power, and operate fairly slowly out of necessity. Vertiwalk does require some physical ability, though, so it wouldn't be feasible for someone who has extremely limited mobility.

The designers presented Vertiwalk at the Venice Architecture Biennale and it's currently on display for Dutch Design Week. The team has also applied for a patent. Only thing missing is a seat belt.