The 2014 World Cup is expected to show the world a cyborg like suit that will help a paralyzed individual rise out of a wheelchair to make the ceremonial first kick of the world soccer tournament. Straight out of a science fiction movie, the robotic suit will be controlled by the users mind.
The invention was created by Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist. The robotic suit controlled by the mind would show the world that there is hope for those who are paralyzed have the opportunity to walk again. Not only walk, but become an active person again. Miguel is a professor of neuroscience at Duke University and has high hopes for his mind controlled exoskeleton. Not just designed to help the paralyzed walk, the technology could be adapted to control prosthetic limbs and help patients with various physical disabilities to regain independence.
Nicolelis, who heads the international Walk Again Project, has been researching and developing the suit over the last 12 years. The idea, which sounds like science fiction, started after Nicolelis co-authored a study showing that a robotic device could be controlled by the brain of a rat. This led to the development of tests with monkeys in 2002 that opened the door for the possibility of the human mind controlling mechanical devices.
While fans will be watching for the soccer games, the real champion of the 2014 World Cup could be people paralyzed given the chance to rise up with the assistance of a cyborg suit. The suit is not only going to give the user the ability to walk. It could very well give the user a sense of feel. The software that Nicolelis developed does not just control the suit. The software allows the user and the cyborg suit to communicate with each other.
In December 2013, Nicolelis begin testing of the software. Nine test subjects were hooked up to the interface that controlled an avatar on a computer screen. The idea was for the subjects, made up of both men and women, to control the avatar on the screen. As the subjects began to control the avatars with their minds, feedback was coming back to the users giving them a sensation that the virtual avatar’s foot was touching the virtual ground. For a paralyzed individual, the ability to feel would allow them to move, grab, touch with a more natural ability.
Nicolelis could not do this all on his own. Someone who specializes in robotics would be needed. Dr. Gordon Cheng, a professor who founded the Institute for Cognitive Systems at the Technical University in Munich was brought in to handle the robotic design side of the project. And in a true worldwide collaboration, the software designed by Nicolelis and the robotics designed by Cheng were put together in an exoskeleton suit built by French researchers in Paris.
All that is left is for the group to find a paralyzed Brazilian teen to train to use the device. A group of teens is currently training for the opening ceremonies of the World Cup. With the start of the tournament just months away, the one who will wear the suit will be selected very soon. The device will have to have a final fitting to the user and a lot of testing to ensure the demonstration in front of the world goes off without issues.
To rise out of a wheelchair with the assistance of a cyborg device in front of the millions watching the 2014 World Cup is just the beginning. Nicolelis knows that the technology is finically out of reach for most of those who could benefit from it today. The professor’s hope is that within the next decade the cost can be lowered and people from around the world will be able to use variations of the cyborg device to get around on a day-to-day basis without the help of others.
Commentary by Carl Auer