A paralyzed person will today ceremonially kick off the World Cup. At least that’s the plan, thanks to a robotic exoskeleton controlled by thoughts.
The equipment is a demonstration of the Walk Again Project, an international collaboration of universities, tech and neuroscience centers. It’s the latest development in research into the idea that detecting electrical signals in specific parts of the brain can be matched to instructions to move particular muscles — whether or not the body can actually carry out those instructions.
While the principle is well established in tests on rodents, taking it as far in practice as a human kicking a ball has involved three additional challenges:
The design used in the World Cup will involve electrodes being placed on the head in a special cap, rather than implanted as with the mice. That weakens the accuracy of the signals.
For the person to walk up to the ball and kick it, they’ll need the physical support to be able to stand rather than just perform the kicking movement. That will be done with motorized braces that have been tested on monkeys.
Unlike with the earliest tests on rodents, the walking and kicking actions require measuring two different signals at the same time, one for each leg.
The identity of the kicker hasn’t been revealed yet. Walk Again Project says it will be a teenager, though the BBC quotes a neuroscientist involved in the project as saying there were eight candidates all aged between 20 and 35. Of these, four have walked with the exoskeleton and one has kicked a ball. It’s taken months of training for the patients to learn how to mentally give exactly the right signals.
As is a chronological inevitability, it will once again be the “most technologically advanced World Cup ever.” It will be the first to have goal line technology, a combination of seven cameras pointing at each goal that use both sensors and analysis of recordings at 500 frames per second to confirm if the ball really has crossed the line. The GoalControl 4D system takes less than a second to complete its assessment and wirelessly sends the decision to the referee’s watch, meaning there are no delays to the game.
Referees will also have a water-based foam to “draw” temporary lines to make sure defending players retreat the required 10 yards at a free kick and that the attacking team takes the kick from the correct location. The line then disappears within one minute, avoiding confusion as the game continues.