The World Cup's Mind-Controlled Exoskeleton

Clayton Aldern | The Atlantic | June 4, 2014

It’s rare for scientists to physically showcase their own work in public settings. But that's how science advances.

In São Paulo, the World Cup may open with a curious sight: A young, paralyzed Brazilian will stand up, walk to centerfield, and kick the ceremonial first ball.

If all goes as planned, aiding the young man or woman will be the newest iteration in a line of thought-controlled exoskeletons. Wearing a snug, 3D-printed helmet and a concealed cap of electrodes, the pilot will simply think about the necessary movements. A backpack housing a nest of wires and actuators will decode the brain waves picked up by the electrode contacts. Using the decoded movement patterns to control the exoskeleton’s limbs, the brain-machine interface will convert human intent into robotic motion.

At least, that’s the dream of the Duke University neuroscientist leading the research efforts. As the June 12 opening ceremony approaches, Brazilian native Miguel Nicolelis and his team are frantically attempting to get the exoskeleton ready for the world stage. Should they succeed, they will have pulled off what is surely one of the most widely viewed live demonstrations of prosthetic science in history...