There are 71 days left until the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup at Arena Corinthians in São Paulo, Brazl. And if all goes according to plan, the ceremony will begin with a spectacular sight: a paraplegic will rise from their wheelchair, walk toward a waiting ball and make the opening kick.
The feat will be the first major public demonstration of the Walk Again Project, an international collaboration between researchers in Germany, France, Brazil and the U.S. that's building a mind-controlled exoskeleton to restore control of limbs for people who've lost it.
In the lead-up to Brazil, the team's leader Miguel Nicolelis has been posting videos from his São Paulo lab offering tantalizing hints at what to expect on June 12:
Here's how the system works: the person operating the suit wears a cap fitted with electrodes, which pick up their brainwaves. Those signals are sent to a computer in a backpack, which translates those mental impulses into instructions for a large exoskeleton made of lightweight alloys. Here's a look at the suit itself:
Nicolelis's team has been training nine paraplegic Brazilians how to use the suit, three of whom will be chosen to attend the opening ceremony and one of whom will deliver the kick.
"The movements are very smooth," Nicolelis told the Guardian. "They are human movements, not robotic movements."
To help mimic the feeling of natural walking, the exoskeleton actually provides feedback to the wearer. Special foot plates are equipped to sense each footfall, triggering a vibration in the arm of the suit which apparently tricks the brain into thinking the sensation came from the wearer's foot. The feedback system is demonstrated here:
"I feel like I'm walking on the beach, that I'm touching the sand," one patient told Nicolelis, according to The Guardian.
To be sure, even if the Walk Again Project manages to help a paraplegic kick the opening ball at the World Cup, we're still years away from affordable, commercially available exoskeletons. But that's very much what Nicolelis has in mind.
"All of the innovations we're putting together for this exoskeleton have in mind the goal of transforming it into something that can be used by patients who suffer from a variety of diseases and injuries that cause paralysis," he said.
To follow along with the project's development, follow Nicolelis's Facebook feed.
Via The Guardian