Exoskeletons Will Be the Eyeglasses of the 21st Century

By Kyle Munkittrick | November 15, 2011 1:34 pm

We don’t often realize it, but all fashion is predicated upon human beings’ predilection for prostheses and augmentations. All clothing, bags, and shoes are augmentation to our body, skin, and feet allowing us to deal with non-tropical climates, to carry large amounts of stuff, and to deal with harsh or unforgiving terrain. If humans hadn’t already modified ourselves, the only fashion we’d have is hairstyle.

Eyeglasses and contact lenses are one of the most prolific forms of medical augmentation on the planet. In many industrialized modern cultures, eyeglasses and contacts are also a major element of fashion. Thin, small glasses are out of fashion; big, chunky frames with large lenses are in. Tomorrow it might be different. But in every case, you have glasses because you have a medical problem that needs fixing.

But what about other medical devices? Canes and even artificial legs are occasionally not merely built to work but are designed and crafted to be fashionable. Could exoskeletons, robotic limbs, and cybernetic augmentations reach a point where they are beautiful? Furthermore, could they ever become so prolific as to be fashionable? More and more, the answer looks to be yes.

Two recent articles, one from the New York Times and one from The Atlantic, point to a future less than a decade away where you will be in the shopping for the latest in cybernetic designs the way you shop for new glasses frames now.

At The Atlantic, Alice G. Watson explains “Why the Future for Quadriplegics Looks Bright“:

The final product sounds more like the imaginings of Dr. Octavius: A fully functional exoskeleton, manipulated through connections to the patient’s motor and somatosensory cortices. “The ultimate goal,” [neurophysiologist Miguel] Nicolelis says, “is to build a robotic vest for the whole body. Just as in this study, a person’s brain activity will control movement of the limbs, and get sensory feedback from the external world.”

This kind of technology could revolutionize the way para- and quadriplegics live their lives. According to Nicolelis, if and when a brain-controlled exoskeleton becomes commonplace, spinal cord injuries will be a different animal altogether. Doctors would theoretically use this kind of technology to treat patients immediately after a spinal cord lesion, so that living in a wheelchair could be a thing of the past.

Though this all sounds a little futuristic, the end-date for this project is oddly close. “We are working with the Brazilian government, who is helping fund the project,” Nicolelis says. “At the 2014 soccer World Cup celebration we hope to have a Brazilian teenager with quadriplegia walk out and make the opening kick.”

The World Cup is in just over two years, folks. To get an idea of the importance of a quadriplegic kicking a soccer ball two years from now is, let’s look at the case of Robert Woo.

Earlier this week, Ekso Bionics debuted their new leg-brace exoskeleton, named Ekso [pictured], at New York City’s Mt. Sinai hospital. The New York Times has a great profile of Robert Woo, one of the first people to test Ekso, and his experience learning to use the device. Seriously, watch the video. It’s simultaneously amazing and depressing. He can walk!—sort of, over very short distances at a belabored pace with a lot of help. But he can walk! Watching Woo use Ekso shuffle across the floor with the assistance of two crutches, a bevy of whirring servos, and a rehabilitation therapist at the controls is hardly the image of the Six Million Dollar Man leaping 10 foot fences conjured in our minds when we hear the word “cyborg.” Of course, Ekso is in the early stages of development and testing. As with Nicolelis’ optimism about the progress he hopes his team makes in the next few years, it was the outlook of Ekso Bionics that blew me away:

“Our goal is that this eventually fits under your pants,” said Eythor Bender, the chief executive of Ekso Bionics in Berkeley, Calif. “You’ll wear it as a fashion item.”

The idea of fashionable cybernetics is preposterous until you remember one thing: a real person is going to have to wear this every day of their life. To a job interview, on a date, to walk the dog, and at the alter—if someone needs an exoskeleton, that exoskeleton is their arms and/or legs. A person using Ekso would want that part of his or her body to look as good as the rest of it. That is the fundamental shift that Ekso is expressing. Just because something is a medical device doesn’t mean it needs to be ugly or drab and utilitarian. Cyborgs should get to be beautiful too.

But again, your Skeptic’s Eyebrow raises (note: Skeptic’s Eyebrow sounds like the scientist’s version of Tennis Elbow). Not a lot of people will need an exoskeleton. So how in the world can I make the claim that exoskeletons will be as prolific and important in this century as eyeglasses were in the last century?

Eyeglasses started as a luxury item that, due to both prohibitive cost and a culture in which most labor did not require perfect vision. As eyeglasses became more readily available during the end of the 19th Century and experiencing an explosion in popularity during the first half of the 20th in conjunction with the rise of the information age. Now eyeglasses are often an essential piece of a person’s identity and personal fashion. So much so that people without eye problems will wear glasses without lenses because they feel left out of an entire segment of fashion. To put that in context: people are feigning a disability to look cool.

Why would the exoskeleton become as popular as eyeglasses? Take a moment and think everyone you know who uses a cane, or crutches, or a wheelchair, or who permanently hobbles around because of an injury or disease or simply because they are old. Our whole population is getting older and staying old longer; an increase age-related mobility issues is bound to follow. Now add in every person, including yourself, that you have known who have temporarily needed one of those devices. There is a much larger built-in user base for exoskeletal legs than you may have previously considered.

Can we expand the user base further? Absolutely. Think about your hobbies. Ekso Bionics started with hiking and backpacking-assist exoskeletons. Now think about all the jobs that would benefit from being able to walk longer distances, run faster, and carry more. The military is an obvious example, but nearly every profession that requires a hard hat or back brace could benefit as well. Now think of what you would do if, for the price of a computer, you had a sweet-looking exoskeleton that you could strap into and be able to run a marathon or hike the Adirondack Trail with ease. The market for exoskeletal enhancements could potentially be massive for soldiers, manual laborers, and weekend warriors alike.

Exoskeletons are currently at the earliest stages of becoming a medical solution for some people. Robert Woo’s experience with Ekso is another tiny step (shuffle?) in the evolution of exoskeletons. But soon enough, a previously paralyzed person will toddler walk across the room thanks to an exoskeleton. Then someone a little later will stride with cybernetic confidence. Exoskeletons will become standard gear in certain professions. And not too long after that, you might step into your own pair of stylish cyborg gams and go on a relaxing 10-mile jog.

For now, I’m excited for the 2014 World Cup in a whole new way.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

Image via Ekso Bionics

  • Cathy

    I think that the entire field of prosthetics needs to take fashion into account. So much of the focus has been on making it look lifelike, which just brings it closer and closer to the uncanny valley, having the opposite effect. Instead, they need to focus on making it look “cool” – instead of Luke Skyewalker’s arm, they should try for Edward Elric’s arm (his looks like a suit of armor.)

  • theodore rummel

    as a paraplegic orthopedic surgeon would love to have this

  • Techs

    And when biotech finds a cure for damaged nerves and other crippling problems? I suspect biotech will beat cyborg arms and legs in the end and not too distant future. Still love Ripley’s Handler in Alien. =)

  • Paul

    The direct link to this page from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/ is not working. It gives me a pop up that asks for a password.

    Ed: Weird. Will look into that. Thanks for heads-up.

  • Robert E

    When trying to access this story from the main Discover Blogs page, you get the following error: A username and password are being requested by http://discoverblogs.sixfeetup.com. The site says: “Restricted Location”

    Ed: This seems to be a quirk resulting from the launch process. Shouldn’t happen in the future (when we’re all wearing exoskeletons).

  • Pingback: Exoskeletons as Fashion « Science Picks

  • James Naranjo

    Does it come with cup holders?

  • Stephen

    A company called Bespoke Innovations is already laser-scanning prosthetics in order to build high-fashion fairings that cover them.

    http://news.cnet.com/2300-13772_3-10010077.html

  • http://www.geoffkinde.com Geoff

    For years I’ve thought it would be convenient to have a third arm. How many times have you tried to unlock a door while carrying a load of groceries? With the exception of people with medical conditions, only the characters of the popular tv show The Big Bang Theory would embrace it. Average consumers would reject the idea completely. If it does become fashionably acceptable in the distant future, this kind of technology would only be available to the extremely wealthy anyway.

  • Pippa

    Most things, including glass cups several hundreds of years ago, begin as only available to the very wealthy and are now taken for granted by the masses. I can now purchase a glass mug at the dollar store that is of infinitely better quality than those exorbitantly priced custard cups of my ancestors. My cheap wrist watch has more power than the first computers, only afforded by universities. If we had dismissed everything that was initially only available to the wealthy, we’d all be much poorer for it. Let the wealthy have their exoskeletons at first, the masses will inherit them later while the wealthy move on to whatever comes next.
    As for the third arm, I am sure that an additional arm that folds away when not in use would be quite acceptable. Why not go for four, or five? A boon to parents of large families.

  • Kyle Munkittrick

    Cathy: Bingo, that’s it. The Uncanny Valley is a great analogy – stop trying to look biological and just design it to look great.

    Stephen: Awesome link, thank you!

    Geoff: All tech starts with early adopters with outlier needs. Cellphones, computers, literacy, fire. Time and exposure bring everyone around.

    Pippa: Octomom would finally fulfill her destiny of not only mothering eight, but being the real life equivalent of Doc Ock. Love it!

  • Pingback: The Beauty of Science « A class blog on science and science journalism

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