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Mind-controlled kick to set the ball rolling at World Cup

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-06-2014 Nikita Mehta

New Delhi: As the football world cup starts in Brazil, the opening ceremony at Arena Corinthians in São Paulo will also highlight an important scientific milestone.

A young paraplegic wearing a robotic suit controlled by the human mind will get up from a wheelchair, walk 25m and kick the ball. The demonstration will usher in the era of neuroprosthetics, showcasing it in one the most watched events in the world.

The demonstration, which is being led by the ‘Walk Again’ project consisting of 156 scientists, engineers and university technicians, and coordinated by Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, recently published one of the last steps of the endeavour on a social network.

Earlier this week, Nicolelis confirmed that the exoskeleton, BRA-Santos Dumont 1, controlled by a volunteer, successfully completed all tests on the pitch where the World Cup opening match will be held.

“I wanted to show the world a new Brazil, a country which is now capable of using science as an agent of social transformation and a tool to benefit humanity,” Nicolelis said in an email interview. “I also wanted to galvanize the imagination of children in Brazil and all over the world and make them realize how great science can be.”

The weight of the 1.78m tall exoskeleton at some 70kg will not matter because the machine will be responsible for the volunteer as well as the exoskeleton’s balance.

The person inside the robot will control the beginning and ending of movements, as well as the kick to the ball using sensors on the sole. The robot will deliver signals to the person’s arm, which will help him/her to imagine his/her legs walking, moving and stamping on the ground. The person’s identity has been kept a secret.

“Given the conditions in which the demo had to be performed and the time available, and given some pilot data we collected, it became clear to us that electroencephalography (EEG—recording of electrical activity along the scalp) was the most practical solution available,” said Nicolelis. “We discovered a nice way to use EEG to control locomotion patterns.”

The first steps of the kicker will be controlled by motor signals emerging in the brain and then transmitted wirelessly to a computer in the backpack carried by the volunteer, according to a paper by Nicolelis. This computer, the paper explained, will also translate electrical brain signals into digital motor commands so that the robotic legs will begin the back and forth movement of a walk.

Developing a mind-controlled prosthesis became a possibility in 2011 when Nicolelis’s team at the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering in the US demonstrated a monkey using its thoughts to manipulate its software avatar.

“The journey towards developing the software was very tough. We faced many obstacles and challenges,” Nicolelis said. “But thanks to the international team we brought together, we were able to count on the best world experts in each field, including neuroscience, rehabilitation medicine, robotics, computer science, to solve them.”

Brain-machine interfaces will become essential for the design of modern prosthesis, he said.

“They will become available in the future, I am sure of that. I simply cannot say how soon. It will all depend how much effort and resources are allocated to achieve this goal,” Nicolelis said. “But it will happen.”

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