Exoskeletons Become Reality

It wasn’t very long ago (see Robotics in Your Future) that I wrote about the role of robotics in accessibility, especially with regard to the exoskeleton. At that time, universities and several vendors were experimenting with exoskeletons and showing how they could help people walk. The software solutions I provide in Accessibility for Everybody are still part of the answer, but more and more it appears that technology will provide more direct answers, which is the point of this post. Imagine my surprised when I opened the September 2011 National Geographic and found an article about eLEGS in it. You can get the flavor of the article in video form on the National Geographic site. Let’s just say that I’m incredibly excited about this turn of events. Imagine, people who had no hope of walking ever again are now doing it!

We’ve moved from experimental to actually distributing this technology—the clinical trials for this device have already begun. The exoskeleton does have limits for now. You need to be under 6 foot 4 inches tall and weigh less than 220 pounds. The candidate must also have good upper body strength. Even so, it’s a great start. As the technology evolves, you can expect to see people doing a lot more walking. Of course, no one who has special needs is running a marathon in this gear yet. However, I can’t even begin to imagine the emotion these people feel when they get up and walk for the first time. The application of this technology is wide ranging. Over 6 million people currently have some form of paralysis that this technology can help.

eLEGS is gesture-based. The way a person moves their arms and upper body determines how the device reacts. Training is required. The person still needs to know how to balance their body and must expend the effort to communicate effectively with the device. I imagine the requirements for using this device will decrease as time goes on. The gestures will become less complex and the strength requirements less arduous.

So, what’s next? Another technology I’ve been watching for a while now is the electronic eye. As far as I know, this device hasn’t entered clinical trials as of yet, but the scientists are working on it. (It has been tested in Germany and could be entering trials in the UK.) The concept is simple. A camera in a special set of glasses transmits visual information to a chip implanted in the person’s eyeball. The chip transmits the required signals to the person’s brain through the optical nerve.  However, the implementation must be terribly hard because our understanding of precisely how all of this works is still flawed.

Even so, look for people who couldn’t walk to walk again soon and those who couldn’t see to see again sometime in the future. There will eventually be technologies to help people hear completely as well. (I haven’t heard of any technology that restores the senses of smell, taste, or touch to those who lack it.) This is an exciting time to live. An aging population will have an increasing number of special needs. Rather than make the end of life a drudge, these devices promise to keep people active. Where do you think science will go next? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.