‘Bionic Olympics’ Bring Cyborg Technology To Competition

A futuristic approach to the games

ETH Cybathlon rehearsal at the Swiss Arena in Kloten, Switzerland, July 14th 2015. (ETH/Alessandro Della Bella) ALESSANDRO DELLA BELLA

Not many athletes compete in mind-controlled computer games. Next month, however, more than fifty teams from around the world will meet near Zurich, Switzerland, to demonstrate their skills in manipulating computer characters, going up and down stairs in powered wheelchairs, and racing to pick up objects with their bionic hands. The events, which start on October 8, are part of the world’s first-ever Cybathlon, and will bring together the world’s best scientists and disabled prosthetic users.

It’s essentially a bionic version of the Olympics. But while the Paralympics focuses on outstanding athleticism, the Cybathlon will highlight novel robotic assistive devices that can help people with physical disabilities cope with everyday life. “We are not so much a sports event, and the philosophy is different,” Robert Riener, a professor at ETH Zurich University who helped organize the Cybathlon told GeekWire. “We want to support the use of technology to overcome daily life’s obstacles.”

The teams range from small research groups to the world’s largest commercial manufacturers of advanced prostheses. And the teams’ “pilots” will be disabled people who will compete in one of six events that utilize exoskeletons, brain-wave controllers, prosthetic arms and legs, powered wheelchairs and muscle-stimulation bikes.

In each event, the pilots will be judged according to how they perform a series of specified tasks. For the exoskeleton contest, pilots will have to sit down on a plush couch, get back up and negotiate an obstacle course that includes a stairway and a front door. For the brain-computer interfaces, that involves moving virtual racers around in a computer game by simply thinking about them. And for the users of powered prosthetic arms, the tasks will be as common as opening a bottle and carrying a box.

Awards will be given to both the winning pilots and makers of the devices they use. Cybathlon organizers hope this helps drive research on these assistive technologies forward–the same way NASCAR and Formula One races have led to advances in automotive technology. They’ve even set up a symposium for the researchers to discuss their technologies at the Cybathlon.

If all goes well with October’s event, a few countries plan to follow-up with their athletes and engineers to further improve on the devices used. And according to Nature, the Cybathlon will then return in 2020, as a seven-day event that coincides with the main Olympic Games to take place in Tokyo.