Even though Paul the prophetic octopus is no longer with us, and even though Brazil is struggling to get the necessary infrastructure and amenities completed in time, I’m looking forward to the 2014 World Cup. I’ve played soccer since I was a kid, and watching the best players in the world do their thing for 90 minutes is a joy, especially since there are no commercials in each 45-minute half. It doesn’t hurt that soccer players are easy on the eyes, either. I don’t really need another reason to tune in, but now I have one, a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton will make its World Cup debut this year.
On June 12 at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paolo, a Brazilian paraplegic will wear the exoskeleton, get out of his or her wheelchair, walk to the middle of the field, and start the World Cup by kicking a ball. Miguel Nicolelis developed the device. Among other things, he’s a neuroengineer who became a TED talk darling with an early manifestation of his idea involving monkeys controlling robots.
Nicolelis’ techniques have proven so successful with other primates that he figured it was time to give them a try with humans, so he and his colleagues at Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering helped launch the Walk Again Project. The ultimate goal is to render wheelchairs obsolete by giving quadriplegics and paraplegics the ability to control their bodies via their brains. The design of this particular exoskeleton was conceived by Nicolelis and a team of international scientists, and built by Gordon Cheng at the Technical University in Munich.
The device isn’t quite as big as Ripley’s power loader, though it’s not exactly dainty or unobtrusive. Hydraulic-powered and made from lightweight alloys, it also has built-in gyros to help balance while walking. The user wears a cap which sends the brain’s signals to a computer which then decodes them and transmits them the hydraulic system enabling the exoskeleton to do what muscles would do. Powered by a battery, this can work consistently for two hours before recharging.
The use of brain waves to control robotic limbs is Nicolelis’ specialty. He’s currently using virtual reality devices to train nine paraplegic men and women at a neurorobotics lab in a Sao Paulo how to operate the device. Three of them get to go to that opening game on June 12—Brazil vs. Croatia—and one of them will deliver the opening kick. The trainees have taken to the exoskeleton, saying that it makes them actually feel like they’re walking. “It confirms our prediction that we are going to elicit a sensation that the exoskeleton is an extension of their body,” Nicolelis said.