The Future of Legs

Popular Science gets a sneak preview of Honda's computerized "walking assist devices"
courtesy Honda

Like any good New Yorker, I love to walk, but as a group of Popular Science editors strolled back to the office today from a hands-on demo of Honda’s latest prototype, we felt sadly … pedestrian. We had gone to see a team of Japanese engineers from the company proudly showing off their new mobility technology — a pair of wearable robotic “Walking Assist Devices.” Strapping the powered gadgets to our legs felt silly, but after taking them off, the sensation of being cast back among unaugmented humans, forced to walk completely under our own primitive power, was a distinct comedown.

The two prototypes, which will be exhibited next week at Detroit’s Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, are designed to provide walking assistance for people with weakened legs or those who need to perform a lot of fatiguing leg work. We gathered in a room at a Times Square hotel, met the Japanese engineers who invented the devices (the company holds more than 130 patents on the technologies involved) and got to try them on.

The first, which looks a bit like an industrial-strength garter belt, is called “Stride Management Assist” (there will doubtless be a renaming process before the devices come to the U.S. market). It secures around the user’s waist and grips each thigh. Then, by monitoring the angle of the hips, it calculates the wearer’s stride and provides helpful force — not exactly moving your legs for you, but what the makers call “cooperative control,” lengthening the stride and regulating the pace of walking.

In motion, it feels like the machine doesn’t want you to amble, pressing instead for a high-stepping march. Wearing it, I climbed a set of steps, feeling like I could climb forever without tiring, and then stopped at the top to pose for a photo — or rather, tried to stop, while the device walked me onward a few paces. It must take some getting used to.

The second device, “Bodyweight Support Assist,” consists of a motorized, articulated frame, with a pair of shoes at one end and a bicycle-style saddle at the other. You switch on the device — each strut’s servomotor starts to whir individually — zip on the shoes, and then lift the padded saddle up into place between your thighs, where it exerts an upward force of 3 kilograms to help support the wearer’s body weight. Not the most comfortable place to experience 3 kilograms of upward force, it turns out.

When you bend your knees to crouch down, the force is increased up to 17 kilograms, making it very easy to hold a crouching posture for long periods of time. Proposed users of the device include factory workers who crouch to lift and look under things, as well as, according to the presentation we were shown, sightseers.

Honda’s reps were unable to offer specific information as to when the devices might come to market, or what exactly the market might be. The versatile technology promises to be very helpful, even life-changing, for people who need mobility assistance, assuming that the triple barriers of price, availability, and fear of strapping robots to your legs can be overcome.