The opening scenes at the 2014 Brazil World Cup kicked off with glitz and glamour, riots and samba, a little Jennifer Lopez and a lot of colour. Amongst the beauty and brilliance there was a moment of revolution for paraplegia and an unforgettable memory for 29-year-old, Juliano Pinto.
Inside Arena Corinthians the ball, which would be kicked by global stars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, was first struck by Portuguese Juliano Pinto; who challenges himself with paraplegia. Paraplegia is the paralysis of the legs and lower body, typically caused by medical conditions.
As the opening ceremony unfolded, eight paraplegic stars wearing robotic exoskeletons walked onto the field, controlling the technology with their brain waves, before Pinto was selected to make the ceremonial kick.
The exoskeleton technology, which was on display, is designed for people hoping to replicate the ability to send signals from their brain to their legs. Using a headpiece, the technology detects brain waves and sends them to the robot suit, allowing the user to control it with their mind.
The participant moves his legs by simply thinking about them. Sensors inside the cap transfer the neuronal signals and send it to a computer inside the exoskeleton’s backpack. These signals are then sent to the legs of the exoskeleton, which move via hydraulic drivers.
Team member Dr. Gordon Cheng simplified the process and told 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 technology and its inspirational delivery on the worlds biggest sporting platform was thanks to the Walk Again Project. A non-profit, international collaboration of more than 150 scientists and rehabilitation professionals across 25 countries and led by Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
The eight paraplegic men and woman were specifically selected by Dr. Lumy Sawaki, lead clinician for the project, and were trained at the University of Kentucky since December 2013. The exoskeleton has three significant innovations in the developing relationship between technology and health challenges. In particular, the exoskeletons hydraulic drivers allow the patient to feel the sensations of real movement as opposed to the feeling of being carried by a robot.
He explained: “When I see a patient and the exoskeleton, and all the time that it took to train them and you see their faces, It makes me so proud and happy. I think all clinicians want to be a doctor to cure their patients. The exoskeleton development is a big hope for them.”
Dr Sawaki and his researchers have also noted that they are working hard to make the technology more practical for everyday life and to bring down the cost so that it will be available to more people in the future.
The @walkagainproject team tweeted later that night ‘ #Exoskeleton does its job and the ball opens up #WorldCup2014!! Thanks to everyone who made this happen! #walkagainsuccess’
Paraplegia is commonly the result of spinal cord mishaps or a congenital condition such as spina-bifida, which affect the neural elements of the spinal canal. The area of the spinal canal that is affected in paraplegia is either the thoracic, lumbar, or sacral region.
While some people with paraplegia can walk to a degree, many are dependent on wheelchairs or other supportive measures. Through the potential development of the exoskeleton, tasks such as standing, walking, kicking a ball and other developing motions shown at the opening ceremony at the 2014 World Cup, could prove instrumental for paraplegia.
How else would you like to sporting events help raise technology awareness to help assist physically challenged athletes?