The World Cup starts tomorrow, and while I won’t be paying much attention to the games, I am interested in the opening ceremonies. Here’s why: a teenager who is paralyzed is going to use a mind-controlled robotic suit called an exoskeleton to do the first kick.
I learned all about this thanks to my part-time job at Easter Seals Headquarters in Chicago. I’m the Interactive Community Coordinator there, which is just a fancy-schmancy title that means I moderate the Easter Seals Blog. My job is to keep my ear open for articles or issues that have something to do with disabilities, recruit interesting people to write blog posts about those things, edit the posts, add html code, and see to it that three posts are publish every week on the Easter Seals blog.
Co-workers at Easter Seals thought it would be good to publish a post about this World Cup exoskeleton thing, but before I could decide who to ask to write it, I had to figure out what an exoskeleton is. Bleacher Report to the rescue! A blog post there explains.
They’re connecting the human brain with machines, with the hopes of using brain waves to allow the paralyzed to communicate with a robotic exoskeleton. This exoskeleton, in turn, will allow the individual to stand up like soccer Voltron and kick the dog-tar out of the first ball in Sao Paulo.
Sounded like something out of a sci-fi movie, and when I approached my colleague Ben Trockman to ask if he’d be interested in writing a post about it, he told me that in some ways, it is. Out of a movie, I mean. Ben saw something like this on Avatar, and he agreed to do the post. Some background on Ben: a dirt bike accident in his teens left him paralyzed from the neck down, and now, eight years later, he’s graduated from college and is working with me at Easter Seals HQ doing an internship in Public Relations & Social Media.
Ben’s post begins with a description of a scene from the movie where a man who is paralyzed from the waist down is able to use brain waves to control his own exoskeleton. “It’s been so long since this man was able to walk by himself that it takes time for his brain to remember how to tell his legs to walk and run again,” Ben writes. “But fairly quickly, he is running around the planet Pandora in the Avatar — it is absolutely incredible, and when I — a man who is paralyzed from the neck down — saw the character in the movie control a fully functional body, I almost broke down in tears.”
Back to real life: Wired magazine quotes a neuroscientist and biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan saying tomorrow’s opening kick might just be grandstanding. “For brain-machine interface researchers,” the Wired story says, “the impressiveness of the demo depends largely on the degree to which the exoskeleton is controlled by the person’s brain.” My husband Mike Knezovich wrote a story years ago about similar research at the University of Chicago, and the Wired story says that while several exoskeletons that can allow a paralyzed person to walk slowly are already available, researchers have only had modest success starting and stopping exoskeletons with signals from the brain. If the teenager walks gracefully at a normal speed to the ball tomorrow and can make adjustments on the fly — like if the ball moves just as he is about to kick it — Wired says that would be a phenomenal advance.
I asked Ben to do the post for Easter Seals because I wanted to know what tomorrow’s kick means to him personally. I wondered if he thought the hype is just a gimmick — more spectacle than science — and he answered my question with the last line of his Easter Seals post: “I know there are some who think that the effort might be promising too much, too soon, but leave no second guessing here — I’m in!”
You can read Ben’s post in its entirety on the Easter Seals blog, and you can tune in to the opening ceremonies tomorrow on ESPN or Univision. The ceremony starts at 2:15 PM Eastern Time, with Brazil hosting Croatia for a 4 PM kickoff afterwards.