One big, robotic foot and then the other; that's how a man wearing a clunky-looking exoskeleton makes his way across the room. The machine's motors are noisy and its movements are painfully slow, but these details seem to fade into the background when you realize how the man is controlling the cumbersome contraption: He's doing it with his mind.
The exoskeleton — a robotic device that fits around the man's hips and legs — is part of a new technology being developed by researchers in Germany and Korea. The other part is a dark cap on the man's head, covered with electrodes that facilitate the connection between his brain and the machine.
The man wearing the exoskeleton in the experiment can walk on his own (he's one of the participants in the researchers' newly published study), but the scientists think their new mind-controlled device could one day be used by people who can't walk.
Lots of researchers are working to develop technologies that help people regain control over their movements through a combination of robotics and brainpower.
In order to manipulate either of these robotic arms with their brains, the patients had to first undergo invasive brain surgery. Surgeons implanted tiny electronics into the patients' brain that, when connected to external wires, allowed the women to control the robotic arms using electrical impulses from their brains.
The person wearing the exoskeleton stares at one of these lights (for example, the one that corresponds to the command for taking a step forward). His brain produces a particular electrical signal in response to seeing the light. That signal is picked up by the electrode cap, which sends the brain signal information to a computer via a wireless connection. The computer then translates the brain signals into the appropriate command and sends that command to the exoskeleton. Within a few seconds, the exoskeleton takes a step forward.
Not only do the researchers need to conduct all kinds of expensive clinical studies before getting these devices anywhere near patients in the real world, the patients themselves will then have to pay for them.