Thursday, June 12, 2014

Paraplegic set to kick off World Cup

A young paraplegic is expected to make the first kick of the World Cup on Thursday using a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton.

If all goes as planned at the opening ceremony, the paraplegic will leave behind his or her wheelchair to take to the pitch in the suit and kick one of the new Brazuca balls.

The identity of the young volunteer is being kept a secret.

The robotic suit has been created by a team of more than 150 researchers.

The development of the suit has been led by Brazilian neuroscientist Dr Miguel Nicolelis, under the banner of a consortium called the Walk Again Project.

Dr Nicolelis, who is based at Duke University in the US, is a leading scientist in the field of brain-machine interfaces. In breakthrough work published in 2003, he showed that monkeys could control the movement of virtual arms on an avatar using just their brain activity.

In a statement, the Walk Again Project said the World Cup demonstration would be 'just the beginning' of a future 'in which people with paralysis may abandon the wheelchair and literally walk again'.

But the setting will be a far cry from laboratory conditions.

'It's the first time an exoskeleton has been controlled by brain activity and offered feedback to the patients,' Dr Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University, told the AFP news agency.

'Doing a demonstration in a stadium is something very much outside our routine in robotics. It's never been done before.'

Pictures released by the consortium have hidden the volunteer's face. But last month, Dr Nicolelis told the BBC he had been training eight patients at his lab in Sao Paulo, all of whom were over 20 years of age, with the oldest about 35.

The exoskeleton uses a cap placed on the patient's head to pick up brain signals and relay them to a computer in the exoskeleton's backpack.

This then decodes the signals and sends them to the legs. The robotic suit is powered by hydraulics, and a battery in the backpack allows for approximately two hours of use.

'The basic idea is that we are recording from the brain and then that signal is being translated into commands for the robot to start moving,' Dr Gordon Cheng, at the Technical University of Munich, who is a member of the team, told the BBC in May.

When questioned by the BBC at the time about the opening ceremony kick, Dr Nicolelis was non-committal: 'That was the original plan,' he explained, adding: 'But not even I could tell you the specifics of how the demonstration will take place.'

However, the latest statement from the Walk Again Project appears to confirm that the patient will perform a 'symbolic kick-off' of the tournament, using one of the official Brazuca balls.

The suit has been named Bra-Santos Dumont, which combines the three-letter designation for Brazil and Alberto Santos-Dumont, the aviation pioneer who was born in the country's southern state of Minas Gerais.