WIRED VOL.26 WIRED TV ISSUE - CYBATHLON
Cybathlon: Breaking The Walls
Cybathlon: Breaking The Walls
It was March 2014 when the news announcing the Cybathlon as "The world’s first 'bionic Olympics'" spread out through the internet including on WIRED UK. The news announced that the first Cybathlon was to be held in October 2016 in Switzerland.
The Cybathlon is a championship for pilots (athletes with disabilities are called pilots in the Cybathlon) who are equipped with state-of-the-art assistive technologies including robotic technologies like powered arm prostheses. The competitors’ teams are comprised of pilots and engineers.
In the official web site of the Cybathlon, its race rules were explained in detail beforehand. For example, the criteria for participating pilots in the Brain-computer interface race (using a brain-computer interface to control an avatar, pilots compete in a video game called the Brain Runners) is clearly defined; "Pilots must have a complete or a severely affected complete loss of motor function at and below the neck level due to SCI, stroke, ALS or another lesion, i.e. are tetraplegic or tetraparetic (ASIA A to C). Pilots are judged for eligibility with regard to psychological condition and motor and cognitive impairments on a case-by-case basis."
The Cybathlon's race courses were also displayed in advance for participants to make a copy of race courses for training and preparation.
Professor Robert Riener, from Sensory-Motor Systems at the Department of Health Sciences and Technology, ETH Zürich relayed the expected outcome for the Cybathlon to ETH News ; "Our original idea, which was to present our research findings to a wider public, of course remains a goal that we continue to pursue. But we would also like to raise people’s awareness of the needs of people with physical disabilities and the obstacles they face in everyday life. Unfortunately, many people without disabilities know very little about the challenges faced today by people with physical disabilities. Alongside technical assistance, for example, accessibility is also extremely important. We believe this knowledge, in turn, can break down more barriers."
Although the rules and ideas for the Cybathlon were defined clearly beforehand, it seemed that no one could have imagined what the Cybathlon would really be. As Professor Riener said, it might be because few people in society could know and imagine the condition of people with disabilities. Actually, the Cybathlon was widely considered as a "live-action" event of science fiction like the Japanese animation movie "Ghost In The Shell".
Encounter with the pilot
On a sunny but cold October 6th, 2 days before the Cybathlon, we were in city of Kloten, Switzerland, the Swiss Arena where the Cybathlon was to be held is located. It takes 30 minutes from the Zürich Main Station. We decided to visit the Hotel Allegra near the Kloten station where many participants of the Cybathlon stayed.
Passing through the entrance and walking around the lobby of the hotel, we found a man with a wheelchair at the bar. When we talked and asked him for an interview, smiling and shaking hands he kindly agreed to our request. He was Mark Daniel, the pilot of IHMC Robotics (Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition Robotics) which is the American team that participated in the powered exoskeleton race.
A powered exoskeleton is a wearable machine consisting of motors, levers, computers, joystick controllers and other series of electric devices that enable people with impairment to their walking function to walk again. It is a promising assistive technology, however, a powered exoskeleton has a lot of problems to be improved; heavy weight (IHMC's is approximately 35 kilograms), user-unfriendly installation and difficulty with public use.
Daniel was born and raised in Pensacola, one of the cities in the state of Florida, U.S. When he was 18 years old, he injured his spine in a car accident which he caused and has been using a wheelchair ever since. In 2010, when he was 22 years old, he began to walk again with the powered exoskeleton which was developed by IHMC.
With Evaluation and tests of their powered exoskeletons, Mark assisted IHMC and decided to be the pilot when the Cybathlon was announced. When I asked him, during the interview, what his purpose was for the Cybathlon, "I came here not for beating someone, but for meeting other teams from all over the world and for acquiring brilliant ideas to improve IHMC's technology dramatically. Me and IHMC's goal is to break down the barrier which the people with disabilities face in society" was his passionate answer.
I dared to ask him why he was not satisfied with a wheelchair. "When we shook hands, you had to bend your knees. That is the only reason I have to stand up and walk to live a normal life." he said. A wheelchair enables people with impairment of walking function to move but not to walk. A wheelchair is not enough to break down the barrier between people with disabilities and the able-bodied.
Beyond winning and losing
On October 8th, 4,600 people from all over the world visited the Swiss Arena where the Cybathlon was being held.
In the powered exoskeleton race in which Daniel and IHMC participated, each pilot competed solving all given tasks (e.g. daily life tasks like sitting down on and standing up from the sofa, walking and passing through doorways) on a 40 meter length race course, as fast as possible.
Daniel could walk the entire race course within approximately 9 minutes with the heavy powered exoskeleton (35 kilograms). This result shows how difficult it is to solve these tasks and finish the race within a given time limit for people with disabilities even though they are everyday tasks. It was also revealed that there are many drawbacks requiring improvement with a powered exoskeleton for daily use.
Daniel finished the preliminary race (after Qualification) in second place. First place went to German team Rewalk which held a 9-second lead on IHMC.
Looking around the stadium, spectators were wildly excited like the Olympic games. They were enthusiastic about both the teams’ passion to pursue the possibilities of technologies and the pilots’ competitive spirit for trying to push the boundaries of humans. In fact, the Cybathlon is the attempt to break down the two "barriers". One of the barriers is technology’s and another is the social awareness’s for people with disabilities.
In the final race, IHMC and Rewalk opened the match neck-and-neck competing for the first place. In the middle of the race, Rewalk exceeded IHMC by 7 points in a task solving and got the first place. At the same time, IHMC in the second place held an approximately 200 points-lead on the team in third place.
The race's finale was the final task of stairs which tests walking over stairs consisting of several steps. If both teams solved this task well, Rewalk would win in first place but if one of the two teams failed, then the winner would be the rest of them. To the loud applause and cheers of the spectators, both teams solved the stairs task. Finally, Rewalk took the first place of the powered exoskeleton race.
After the closing of the Cybathlon, a lot of pilots, engineers from participant teams and the operations staff including the judges of the Cybathlon all gathered in the center of the arena. In the Cybathlon, the judges were students from ETH Zürich who research assistive technologies for people with disabilities. Exchanging their uniforms and information about their technologies, they embraced each other tightly. They promised a reunion in the next Cybathlon which is announced to be held in Zürich, Switzerland in 2020.
In the crowded arena stage, we found Daniel all smiles. He really enjoyed meeting friends who share the same goals. Until the next Cybathlon, a lot of improvement will be made from their connections. The first Cybathlon will be the beginning of the new evolution of the technologies for the people with disabilities.
Walk forward, step by step
On the next day of the Cybathlon, we went to the hotel in which he stayed. Daniel had told us that he would walk outside in the street of Zürich wearing the power exoskeleton. They did a test walk in public space and shot a film for promotion.
Under the blue sky, alongside the river of Limmat, while the IHMC team were preparing for walking gradually people came to see them. Some encountered them while out running, others were tourists who met them by chance, and one person who watched Daniel on TV wanted him to shake hands. When Daniel began to walk on the bridge across the river of Limmat, people gave him thunderous applause like in the Cybathlon.
Watching him walking, Dr. Peter Neuhaus who is leading team IHMC told us; "We still has a long way to walk". Daniel and team IHMC have begun to walk toward the next goal. As a nonprofit organization, they need to raise funds for continuous research. For funding, they need to do more promotion.
"After the Cybathlon, Mark will try the American Discovery Trail (4,834 miles) with his wheel chair. If he achieves it, it will be the first attempt by a paraplegic. As promotion, we will try to introduce our technology during his journey." Peter said.
The barrier between the people with disabilities and the non-disabled is like a thick wall. It is still hard to break down. Innovative participants and enthusiastic visitors of the Cybathlon need to improve their technologies and make changes for social awareness. Unless they can expand the value of the Cybathlon all over the world, the barrier will still stand in the future.
Watching him walking the streets of Zürich, we surely believed that that future will come.