A paraplegic man made the first kick at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, using a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton in order to do so.
29-year old Juliano Pinto was clad in a hefty metal suit and wore a cap speckled with electrodes. Using these, he was able to walk and kick, something he had not been able to do since a car accident in 2006 which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
The incredible technology that allowed him to do this came from the mind of Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, the team leader of the aptly named Walk Again Project. His team of 150 researchers worked for over two years to complete this project, costing the Brazilian government around $14 million.
Although Pinto only showed the world the technology for a mere few seconds, the implications of the robotic exoskeleton goes far beyond that.
“The World Cup demonstration is ceremonial, as we have only a moment to show a kick,” Sanjay Joshi, a roboticist from the University of California at Davis, who was also involved with the Walk Again Project. “But maybe that kick will inspire a child somewhere in the world to become a doctor, engineer or scientist.”
The technology behind the “Iron Man” like exoskeleton resembles something out of a science fiction story. The device meshes together physical, battery-powered hardware with the electrical currents that human brains send out. In order to do this, Pinto had to wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap that was dotted with electrodes.
The cap was able to pick up electrical currents in the brain, which then passed through sensors on the robotic suit. The suit’s sensors allowed for Pinto to be able to move the legs of the suit by using his mind. He had to learn how to correctly think about moving his legs in a way that the sensors could pick up, but after a while Pinto and other test subjects got the hand of it.
After that, the patients were able to walk using the exoskeleton. One patient was even able to take a whopping 132 steps, which astounded Nicolelis and his team.
In the future, this technology will hopefully become more widespread and less costly, allowing for more paraplegic patients to use it. Although the kick at the World Cup was impressive, it remains to be seen as to what will happen with this technology.
“A successful kick is a demonstration event, but the technological development needed to be able to attempt the demo is the contribution to the future of exoskeletons for those with spinal cord injury,” said Anil Raj, a research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition .
“$14 million for training eight patients and building a novel exoskeleton and brain-controlled interface seems to me to be a reasonable expenditure,” she added.