Cyborg-soccer: How a paraplegic took first kick at the World Cup
Scientists at work at Brazilian scientist Miguel Nicolelis's lab in Sao Paulo in this undated image. (AFP Photo / BigBonsai + LenteVivaFilmes)
Katherine DeClerq, Special to CTVNews.ca
Published Saturday, June 14, 2014 11:40AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, June 14, 2014 1:15PM EDT
Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old paraplegic, dressed in Brazil's home colours, walked out into the Arena de Sao Paulo stadium and performed the ceremonial first kick at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
His power-kick came with the help of a robotic exoskeleton suit, a new technology that is mind-controlled.
For many, this demonstration seemed like a fun way to start the international sporting event, but the breakthrough science behind the opening kick is what inventor and Brazilian scientist Miguel Nicolelis hopes people will remember.
More than 150 scientists and rehabilitation professionals from around the world collaborated on the mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton suit, also called the Walk Again Project. Led by Nicolelis, the group's goal is to eventually make wheelchairs obsolete.
Back in 2012, Nicolelis published a paper in Scientific America saying the World Cup demonstration would "mark a milestone in over-coming paralysis."
Here are five things you should know about this new technology:
1. The suit reads the neural activity in the brain and decodes commands. A cap, which is fitted with electrodes, picks up the EEG signals from the brain, and sends them to a computer hidden in the back of the skeleton. The computer then decodes the command and activates hydraulic drivers in the suit, allowing limbs to move.
2. The suit does more than just follow preprogrammed instructions. Without the imagination of the patient, the computer cannot interpret commands. Nicolelis calls it "share control," and says that the feedback being processed by the brain works in tandem with the lower-level mechanics of the suit. The exact percentage of mind-controlled versus preprogrammed commands isn't known.
3. It does more than just move limbs. It allows patients to actually feel them. The microscopic sensors used by the exoskeleton will imitate a sense of touch. According to Nicolelis, the brain will begin to interpret the robotic suit as an extension of the body, and therefore the movements will activate neurons in the brain instead of just receiving them, making it the perfect virtual reality.
4. Further experiments have expanded the potential for mind-controlled technologies. Scientists working with the Walk Again Project conducted tests with monkeys and had them walk on a treadmill using robotic legs. After the treadmill had stopped, the monkey-affectionately called Idoya-continued to move around the room. The experiments implied that it's possible to manipulate robots without electronic controls or preprogrammed tools. Nicolelis is already pondering what this will mean for the scientific community: humanoid robots could be sent to environments where regular humans may not be able to go, or doctors could use use microsurgical tools that are able to operate from inside the body.
5. What the future holds. His team will be looking at implanting electrodes directly into the brain to manipulate a robotic limb. In his 2012 paper, he mentions a colleague who has devised a sensor that could pick up signals "throughout a three-dimensional volume of cortex," allowing more neural activity to be decoded at a higher speed. However, he stresses this technology is nowhere ready for testing.
Nicolelis is currently training nine people to use this technology. All were present during the World Cup opening ceremony, although only one had the honour of kicking the ball.
The Walk Again Project was thrilled with the demonstration, and has promised to file further reports on the technology in the coming months.