A paralyzed teenager may kick the first ceremonial ball at the World Cup in Brazil later this year, with help from a mind-controlled exoskeleton suit.
The robotic body suit was dreamed up by The Walk Again Project, a nonprofit, international collaboration lead by the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering. The suit will help a paraplegic volunteer to rise up from a wheelchair, stroll over to a soccer ball and kick it toward the goal.
The kicker — chosen from a group of 10 paraplegic teenagers — will maneuver the suit’s motorized leg brace to straighten and bend the kicker’s leg. Since paraplegics have no feeling in their legs, the suit employs specialized lower body sensors that send vibrations to the upper body, simulating the sense of moving along the ground.
Thoughts translate into action through thin electrodes attached to a helmet, explained Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the suit’s lead designer. The wires will detect electrical signals generated by hundreds of individual brain cells and coordinate them with the appropriate muscular movement.
“In a sense it’s a negotiation between the patient and the system,” Nicolelis said.
Currently, the 10 teenage male and female volunteers are training for the kick within a virtual reality environment.
“Right now they are using their brain waves to control an avatar on a screen,” explained Regis Kopper, director of Duke Immersive Virtual Environment, the group in charge of the training. “This will ready them for the real event when they put on the suit and do it themselves.”
One volunteer and an alternate will be chosen for the World Cup ceremonial kick in the next couple of months and begin the final training using the suit, Nicolelis said. Selection will be based on body size and ability to control the suit.
The ultimate goal of the project is to make wheelchairs obsolete, Nicolelis said. He said he believes this is achievable in the near future as “neuroprosthetic” devices like the exoskeleton become more sophisticated.
“The World Cup kick will show the world we are getting very close to this kind of milestone,” he said. “Most people don’t believe it is possible, but if all goes well, this will prove to them that we are closer than they realized.”