The 2014 FIFA World Cup made history when it opened in Sao Paolo this week when a 29-year-old paraplegic man named Juliano Pinto kicked a soccer ball with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton. It was the first time a mind-controlled prosthetic was used in a sporting event, and represented the culmination of months worth of planning and years worth of technical development.
The exoskeleton was created with the help of over 150 researchers led by neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University, who’s collaborative effort was called the Walk Again Project. As Pinto successfully made the kick off with the exoskeleton, the Walk Again Project scientists stood by, watching and smiling proudly inside the Corinthians Arena. And the resulting buzz did not go unnoticed.
Immediately after the kick, Nicolelis tweeted about the groundbreaking event, saying simply: “We did it!” The moment was monumental considering that only a few of months ago, Nicolelis was excited just to have people talking about the idea of a mind-controlled exoskeleton being tested in such a grand fashion. As he said in an interview with Grandland after the event:
Despite all of the difficulties of the project, it has already succeeded. You go to Sao Paulo today, or you go to Rio, people are talking about this demo more than they are talking about football, which is unbelievably impossible in Brazil.
Dr. Gordon Cheng, a team member and the lead robotics engineer of the Technical University of Munich, explained how the exoskeleton works in an interview with BBC News:
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.
The result of many years of development, the mind-controlled exoskeleton represents a breakthrough in restoring ambulatory ability to those who have suffered a loss of motion due to injury. Using metal braces that were tested on monkeys, the exoskeleton relies on a series of wireless electrodes attached to the head that collect brainwaves, which then signal the suit to move. The braces are also stabilized by gyroscopes and powered by a battery carried by the kicker in a backpack.
Originally, a teenage paraplegic was expected to make the kick off. However, after a rigorous selection process that lasted many months, the 29 year-old Pinto was selected. And in performing the kickoff, he participated in an event designed to galvanize the imagination of millions of people around the world. It’s a new age of technology, friends, where disability is no longer a permanent thing,.
And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the event: