Mind over muscle

The World Cup will open with a kick from a brain-controlled exoskeleton

June 12, 2014
June 12, 2014

Using nothing but his thoughts, a paralyzed Brazilian will kick off today’s World Cup wearing the world’s most advanced brain-controlled exoskeleton. The device, called BRA-Santos Dumont, is a product of the Walk Again Project, an international collaboration of neuroscientists and engineers spearheaded by Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis.

Pooled from more than 65,000 paralyzed patients, Nicolelis and his team chose just eight to test the device. And during today’s opening ceremony, with around one billion watching, one of the eight will get to debut the new ensemble. His or her intended movements, encoded in a pattern of brain signals, will be read by a non-invasive cap outfitted with electrodes. The cap is designed to receive and transmit the brain waves to a computer, where they will be decoded and converted into movement commands for BRA-Santos Dumont.

The action won’t stop then. What makes the brain-machine interface particularly phenomenal, Nicolelis told AFP, is that it’s the first exoskeleton that can give feedback to its wearer. Outfitted with sensor-studded artificial skin called CellulARSkin, the exoskeleton can translate sensations of touch from the soles of its “feet” into vibrations on the patient’s arm—allowing the patient to feel the ground beneath his paralyzed toes.

Holding a scientific demonstration in the Sao Paulo Arena may not have been FIFA’s original intention, but for Nicolelis and his team, it’s an opportunity to show the world breakthrough technology and give hope to the millions of patients paralyzed by disease or injury. Eventually, the goal is make exoskeletons commonplace, leaving wheelchairs rolling in the dust.

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