Last Saturday, in a sold-out stadium in Zurich, Switzerland, the world's first cyborg Olympics showed the world a new science-fiction version of sports. At the Cybathlon, people with disabilities used robotic technology to turn themselves into cyborg athletes. They competed for gold and glory in six different events. Rather than celebrating pure human brawn, the Cybathlon rejoiced in the combined power of muscle and machine. The competitors, who were called "pilots," were people with missing limbs or some form of paralysis; on their own they could never have moved through the races successfully.
Silke Pan of Team PolyWalk EPFL in the powered exoskeleton race. Most physical competitions are based around the idea of participants pushing themselves physically, demonstrating to the world that they are the fastest, strongest, or otherwise physically gifted. For those with significant physical disabilities or injuries, however, simply accomplishing basic everyday tasks can be an Olympic-level feat. That's where Cybathlon, a new competition designed to promote innovative assistive devices, may accomplish two goals: providing a competitive forum for disabled athletes, and highlighting the specific advances that are being made in robotic assistive aids designed to help those with significant physical disabilities. Conceived and developed by Switzerland's ETH Zurich (a science and research university) and National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Robotics professor Robert Riener, the first iteration of Cybathlon took place last October in Zurich.
Pilot Matt Standridge will compete in the Cybathlon using an exoskeleton from the University of Houston's Noninvasive Brain-Machine Interface Systems Laboratory designed to help people with paraplegia to walk. Vance Bergeron was once an amateur cyclist who rode 7,000 kilometres per year -- much of it on steep climbs in the Alps. But in February 2013, as the 50-year-old chemical engineer was biking to work at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyons, France, he was hit by a car. The impact sent him flying through the air and onto his head, breaking his neck. When he woke, he learnt that he would never again move his legs on his own, and would have only limited use of his arms.
Not many athletes compete in mind-controlled computer games. Next month, however, more than fifty teams from around the world will meet near Zurich, Switzerland, to demonstrate their skills in manipulating computer characters, going up and down stairs in powered wheelchairs, and racing to pick up objects with their bionic hands. The events, which start on October 8, are part of the world's first-ever Cybathlon, and will bring together the world's best scientists and disabled prosthetic users. But while the Paralympics focuses on outstanding athleticism, the Cybathlon will highlight novel robotic assistive devices that can help people with physical disabilities cope with everyday life. "We are not so much a sports event, and the philosophy is different," Robert Riener, a professor at ETH Zurich University who helped organize the Cybathlon told GeekWire.
Andre van Rüschen slowly climbed a five-step ramp at the end of his race. With a black processor strapped to his back and leg supports on either side of his lower limbs, he stayed focused on the body-machine coordination that was keeping him upright. He had walked over a wooden slope, criss-crossed bright yellow bars and tried to step on gray discs that were placed irregularly on the floor. Now, standing atop the last obstacle in the exoskeleton race, he took a moment to pause and look up at his opponent on the adjacent track. They were both on the ramp, going head-to-head at the world's first Cybathlon, a sporting competition designed for people with severe disabilities.