MindWalker — the world’s first mind-controlled exoskeleton — is making strides to help paralyzed people take their first steps in years.
Funded by the European Commission and developed by a consortium of several universities and companies, the exoskeleton is comprised of three main parts: the contraption itself, a human frame that holds up a persons body weight and animates the legs when instructed, mind-reading head gear and a virtual reality environment for training simulations.
To control the exoskeleton, users wear an EEG cap full of sensors the measures brain activity. While the MindWalker can be operated in a variety of different ways, the best way involves wearing a pair of glasses with flickering diodes on each lens. The diodes flash at different frequencies in the user’s peripheral vision, New Scientist’s Helen Thomson noted. After the light is processed by the brain’s occipital cortex, the EEG skull cap measure’s whether the wearer is concentrating on the left or right diode. Concentrating on the left diode makes the exoskeleton walk, while concentrating on the right makes it stop.
If the wearer is only paralyzed from the waist down, MindWalker can also be controlled by the upper body. In this case, a user can lean either left or right and a pressure sensor on the lower back will register the motion and move the opposite leg.
While MindWalker has been in development for three years, the team plans to take another fives years to refine the exoskeleton in hopes of creating a commercial version. Researchers also want to do away with the flashing-diode glasses, which is a possibility since part of the team has identified brain activity that occurs a second before steps are taken. Such brain activity — whether to walk quickly or slowly — can be picked up by EEG signals, so researchers are hopeful that these signals could be integrated into MindWalker algorithms to even help those who are unable to move their eyes.
But overall, the consensus is to make the exoskeleton less bulky. “We’re going to make it more lightweight and smooth out the movements and possibly even incorporate it all into a pair of pants to make it a little less “Robocop,” Jeremi Gancet, a deputy coordinator on the project, told New Scientist. Check out a video of the MindWalker in action here.
Credit: MindWalker Project