The movie Big Hero 6 provoked some thoughts like what if we can have a baymax of our own. Or even more what if the iron suit was around us. The reality is catching up fast with the fiction.This is an era of exoskeleton wherein people can gear up with one of the suits and walk putting one big, robotic foot and then the other. The sound of the machine can be disturbing but nevertheless the technology on which it works is novel. The human mind controls the entire machine.
The exoskeleton — a robotic device that fits around the man’s hips and legs — is part of a new technology being developed by researchers in Germany and Korea. The other part is a dark cap on the man’s head, covered with electrodes that facilitate the connection between his brain and the machine.
The man wearing the exoskeleton in the experiment can walk on his own, but the scientists think their new mind-controlled device could one day be used by people who can’t walk. Lots of researchers are working to develop technologies that help people regain control over their movements through a combination of robotics and brainpower.
But these technologies differ from the new brain-controlled exoskeleton in a very important way: In order to manipulate either of these robotic arms with their brains, the person had to first undergo invasive brain surgery. Surgeons implanted tiny electronics into the patients’ brain that, when connected to external wires, allowed the person to control the robotic arms using electrical impulses from their brains.
But the brain-computer interface developed by researchers at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, and the Technical University (TU) of Berlin doesn’t require brain surgery. In order to control the exoskeleton, study subjects first strap on the cap covered in small electrodes that cling to their scalps. The skullcaps are the tools that connect the subject’s brain to the exoskeleton, the researchers said, and are commonly used in electroencephalograms (EEGs) — a method of recording electrical activity by placing conductive materials on the scalp (the brain waves are then plotted on a chart, much like heart rate).
In the exoskeleton study, the EEG cap was used to pick up very particular brain signals — those created by what the researchers call steady-state visual evoked potentials (SSVEPs). Essentially, the electrodes detect “flashing lights,” the researchers said.
A small controller jutting out from the exoskeleton holds a set of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that light up in different patterns. The patterns represent specific commands that the exoskeleton can carry out, such as stand up, sit down, walk forward, turn left and turn right.
The person wearing the exoskeleton stares at one of these lights (for example, the one that corresponds to the command for taking a step forward). His brain produces a particular electrical signal in response to seeing the light. That signal is picked up by the electrode cap, which sends the brain signal information to a computer via a wireless connection. The computer then translates the brain signals into the appropriate command and sends that command to the exoskeleton. Within a few seconds, the exoskeleton takes a step forward.