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Research / Discovery

The Muse: Science and Spectacle

June 29, 2014
By Alan Rudolph, Vice President for Research

I had to decompress for a few days before reflecting and writing about my most recent experiences in South America at the Copa do Mundo, the FIFA World Cup.

For the last 18 months I have been managing an international consortium of 125 people in 25 countries who were designing, building and testing a new prosthetic — or exoskeleton — that people with severe spinal cord injuries could control with their brains.

The focus of the Walk Again Project, which was funded by the Brazilian government, was to develop new device innovations and human clinical experimentation in brain control of exoskeletons for the mobility disabled. We also were challenged with showcasing our scientific achievement at the opening ceremony of the World Cup on June 12 — almost 17 months from the start of the project (we often reflected on the sanity of that). 

We accepted this challenge recognizing that a demonstration had the potential to highlight coming innovations and inspire millions of people about what is possible in the dawning age of human-assisted technologies. None of us anticipated the trials, tribulations, ebullitions and amazing achievements that would be born from our experiences. We usually don't do science and technology projects with immovable deadlines on a global stage viewed by millions.

Science or spectacle?

Along the way, interesting dialogue emerged in various media that posed questions such as: Is it appropriate to bring this demonstration to this world stage?  Is it raising expectations too soon?  Were the innovations in the technology advanced enough to warrant such visibility?  Should science merge with a sporting event?  Was it science or spectacle? 

In addition to this legitimate media scrutiny, there were the logistical and political tussles between Swiss-owned FIFA – which manages the World Cup — and Brazil about the investments in stadiums, messaging for the ceremonial kickoff and other issues that arise before a multi-billion dollar event.

There were other challenging factors at work: the launching of a new US BRAIN initiative with a request for $4.5 billion over 10 years (Francis Collins visited the Walk Again laboratory one week before the demonstration and blogged about it the day of the event); and the complex logistics of taking a prototype experiment to a field demonstration with 70,000-plus people watching live and millions more on television.

The six months leading up the demonstrations grew increasingly intense for the Walk Again team as we managed these scientific, technical, logistical and political challenges. 

Role in opening ceremony

One of the biggest challenges was managing the Walk Again demonstration’s role in the opening ceremony. We asked FIFA for time during the ceremony to have a paralyzed subject from our trials get up, walk, and kick a ball. 

We were given 30 seconds of the 25-minute ceremony and asked to perform only a kick on the field that was choreographed into the ceremony.  In the final hours, it became clear FIFA planned to integrate the kick with artistic display in the ceremony – not its own demonstration. Because of FIFA’s firm media restrictions only FIFA videographers were allowed to record the demonstration.

The Walk Again demonstration at the stadium was a huge success. Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old man who severed his spine in an accident a few years ago, was on the side of the field and, with the exoskeleton under brain control, kicked a ball onto the field to open the game — and then raised his hand in jubilation.

It was a triumph.

More than 25 million people have viewed the video. Even though FIFA only released a short clip of the event, the project has posted numerous videos of the work in our clinical trial with paralyzed subjects experiencing walking for the first time under brain control. 

The Brazilian government is now pressing FIFA about whether it has more video footage and if the organization would release it. 

Science behind Walk Again

Here’s what I saw and know about the science and technology behind the Walk Again Project and demonstration:

  • The exoskeleton was the first that provided sensory feedback to the subject allowing him to stand, walk and kick in a shared control scheme between the operator and the exoskeleton.  We continue our efforts to develop the exoskeleton to be entirely autonomous and operated in a shared control scheme with brain control.
  • The use of electroencephalography (or EEG, a non-invasive extraction of brain signals), electromyography (muscle movements from their tricep area), and tactile feedback from sensors placed on their legs provided that sensory feedback and the feeling of walking again.
  • Virtual reality played a large role in training subjects to use the exoskeleton.  With Occulus goggles, the subjects trained first in a virtual environment with an avatar of themselves using our EEG, EMG, and tactile sensors to control the exoskeleton in this immersive virtual environment. 
  • Subjects then transitioned to a zero-gravity environment with the exoskeleton where they could practice with heavier and heavier loads until they could bear the full load.  All eight subjects learned to maneuver the exoskeleton with their brains and were able to walk and kick the ball. They logged more than 200 hours of training. 
  • The Walk Again team is analyzing this data. We observed increased performance parameters demonstrating shared control of the exoskeleton and will be preparing a number of papers for peer-reviewed publications.

The six seconds people have seen at the ceremony represents a small fraction of the scientific impact of the Walk Again project’s work.  Much more information about our clinical work will be submitted for publication in the scientific literature. 

And, I am left with the interesting experience of science as spectacle. The project sparked a dialogue about science and technological innovation and piqued new interest in supporting scientific research and development. It inspired a new generation to dream what might be possible. It highlighted the globalization of science and the emergence of Brazil as a leader in brain science and technology.

I returned to the U.S. last week to the news of Amy Van Dyken Rouen’s accident and transfer to Craig Hospital to begin her journey to walk again. I thought about the Walk Again Project and how proud I was of our successful efforts to advance this technology.

Would I do it again?  

The Olympic and Para-Olympic games open in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5, 2016.