Formidable Brain Makes First Kick of World Cup

Source: Walk Again Project
The Walk Again Project prepares to show the world its robotic exoskeleton at the opening ceremony of the World Cup on June 12, 2014, in São Paulo.

The most memorable kick at the World Cup may end up coming from a paralyzed young man.

The ceremonial first kick of the games, which started this week in Sao Paulo, marked the debut of an exoskeleton controlled by the mind of 29-year-old Juliano Pinto, a Brazilian paraplegic. The robotic suit is operated by a cap filled with electrodes that read the user's brain waves; a computer in a backpack converts the electrical impulses from the cap into the physical movements the user wishes to make. The exoskeleton was created by a team of more than 150 scientists, from 25 countries, led by Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist and Duke University faculty member.

Pinto wore the Brazilian national team's uniform and was accompanied by the other seven patients who had participated in clinical trials of the suit. A ref was on hand to complete the picture.

"It was up to Juliano to wear the exoskeleton, but all of them made that shot. It was a big score by these people and by our science," Nicolelis said in a statement.

Exoskeletons have been around for years but offer limited functionality and face a demanding range of needs. Some users have minimal motor function, while others have none at all, requiring almost completely different machines.

The scientists behind tonight's big demo say their skeleton breaks new ground. It uses sensors in the limbs that vibrate in coordination with contact, conveying the feeling of walking -- or, in this case, kicking -- and providing feedback on force, impact and temperature. A visual display also gives the user signals from the physical interaction.

The project, Walk Again, expects to publish its findings in science journals in the coming months. In Brazil, it is led by the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal, has received funding from the Brazilian government and been sponsored by Itaú Unibanco.

It got $14 million from the government over the past two years, Agence France-Presse quoted Nicolelis as saying. "That's approximately four or five times less than what the United States government invests in a mechanical arm," he said.

In the U.S., the Army is eagerly following the fortunes of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s HULC exoskeleton, whose purpose is very different -- to create a super-soldier.

Walk Again has christened the suit the Bra-Santos Dumont, combining Brazil with the name of 19th-century Franco-Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont, who championed controllable flight by circumnavigating the Eiffel Tower in a dirigible.

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