Photo: Javier Garcia/BPI/REX USA.
On June 12, hundreds of millions of people around the world will tune in as the World Cup begins in Sao Paolo, Brazil. And, in addition to the expected pomp, circumstance, and samba, they're in for a pretty darn impressive display of scientific achievement. According to FIFA officials, the first official kick of the tournament will be performed by a paralyzed person outfitted with an exoskeleton that is controlled by the thoughts of the person wearing it.
Appropriately called the Walk Again Project, this extraordinarily complex technology — a collaboration between more than 100 scientists from around the world — has been in development for eight years. The suit works as a conduit between the user's thoughts and his or her paralyzed limbs, recording and interpreting signals from the brain through electrodes attached to the wearer's head. That information is then translated into motion by the skeleton, which causes the user's legs to move.
The exoskeleton will also incorporate a sort of artificial "skin" that provides tactile feedback signals to the wearer. This so-called CellulARSkin system gives the user the sensation of the ground beneath his or her legs, which researchers say serves as a crucial missing piece in the quest to increase mobility. The exoskeleton's honeycomb-patterned network of sensors connects to vibrating panels on the arms, and is capable of providing a wide array of information to the user, including pressure and temperature.
Of course, a system like this requires extensive training for the wearer to re-orient his or her brain to process all the information and use it to control an entirely new motor system. And, the research team has a number of tweaks to make before this project is ready for mainstream use — so don't expect to see a new wave of fully-mobile, metal-clad men and women walking around anytime soon. Still, there's something pretty incredible about someone who's paralyzed from the waist down actually walking out onto the field and kicking that first ball in front of millions of viewers. Stunt? Sure. Amazing? Absolutely.