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‘Cybathlon’ Offers Glimpse of Future – and of Hope for the Disabled

18 Oct, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Competition Celebrating Assistive Technology Goes as Far as Exoskeletons, Brain/Computer Interface Races and More

Inspiring and almost mind-blowingly futuristic, Cybathlon, the-first of-its-kind competition for participants with profound physical disabilities, just made ‘Avatar’ look like training wheels for reality. The event used assistive technology to achieve what previously might have been thought impossible and in doing so, provided not just fascination for science-minded individuals, but hope for those who live their lives within the boundaries of disabilities.

According to the Sport Techie newsletter, the event, held in Zurich, Switzerland, included the participation of individuals known as pilots – those with disabilities stemming from amputation, paraplegia and quadriplegia. Pilots worked with teams of developers who designed and trained them in the use of special equipment. This equipment, however, went beyond traditional prostheses and assistive devices, harnessing everything from electrical impulses to brain waves in order to create a new landscape for those used to living with limitations.

Oh, and it was incredibly competitive. Winning teams, just as in Formula 1, stood to receive two medals: one for the pilot and one for the designers.

A total of 74 pilots from 25 countries participated in the event, which included the following competitions:

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Bike: Pilots with paralysis in their lower bodies used special bikes on an indoor one-kilometer racetrack. Their leg muscles and movements were powered by assistive technology that allows paralyzed muscles to move. Another Sport Techie article noted that all the bikes were non-motorized. The technology powered their movements but the pilots still had to channelize their power and stamina to win the  race. In other words, even though the participants didn’t feel any sensations in their paralyzed muscles they had to train for the race through conditioning and endurance building.

Powered Arm Prosthesis Race: Using robotic arms, pilots worked to perform six everyday tasks, each requiring a different type of grip. And while work such as slicing bread, pinning clothes on a line, and lifting objects might not faze the general public, prosthetic arms are still evolving, and the ability to rotate the wrist and use pressure on individual fingers is something that has long been beyond many amputees, even those with myoelectric devices.

Powered Leg Prosthesis Race: An obstacle race that included beams, stairs and slopes challenged athletes to do more than they had previously been able to attempt. The winner, Helgi Sveinsson, was an Icelandic pilot, Paralympian and current European javelin champion. The prosthesis Sveinsson used is currently available on the market; it allowed him to finish the course in 63 seconds.

Powered Exoskeleton Race: Pilots with paraplegia were able to use exoskeletons on their legs and complete tasks ranging from climbing, walking and stepping over obstacles. Sport Techie noted that most exoskeletons hit challenges during the race, demonstrating that further development is needed.

“It would be a dream come true for any paraplegic to have the mobility to walk freely again, and that is precisely what these powered exoskeletons were aiming for,” the article stated. “However, this race was an example that proved that there is a massive scope for the development of wearable exoskeletons.”

Powered Wheelchair Race: Pilots raced with advanced wheelchairs through a race course that included going up and down steps. This too created challenges; however, it offered a glimpse into solutions to a currently insurmountable obstacle to wheelchair-bound individuals.

Brain/Computer Interface (BCI) Race: In this event, pilots raced through their minds, represented by avatars on a specially developed computer game. Competitors controlled their race avatars on the screen using only their thoughts and no other body movement. Their thoughts were translated into virtual action through a cap with multiple electrodes fitted on their head. Much like athletes in shooting or archery, contestants needed a sharp focus that could not waver from the task at hand. But the fact that they were quadriplegic set this race apart. People with severe motor disabilities had just successfully used a computer device operated only via brain signals.

And just as with any other race, the winners were greeted with loud cheers from the audience.

While the technology showcased at some point still has miles to go, it demonstrated the potential for overcoming many of the limitations within which individuals had previously lived their lives. And unlike the Paralympics, which celebrates athletic performance and strives for equality, Cybathlon aimed to create a competition where technology developers worked optimally with disabled people to solve their daily life obstacles. In many ways, that was the greatest win of all.

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