The Science of Sustainability

Exoskeletons Walk Forward

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How do you see the world? Visual perspective – the way things appear to our eye- things like shapes, dimensions, colors- those are set. But some perspectives can be manipulated; proximity or angles can be changed. For example, you might be sitting at your computer now. Stand up and see how the room looks different from that other angle. While there are optical illusions and tricks to the eye, most visual variables are not going to be physically altered. (standing up isn’t going to change the color of the curtains) But a different view can change perceptions. And how we perceive the information we take in is very much a choice.

We all perceive the world through our own lens. (You might think those curtains are ugly) Our point of view, or cognitive perception, is largely shaped by our experiences, our beliefs, emotions, moods and the actions around us. In that way, you choose how you see. And how we traverse the world and how we interact with others is shaped by this perspective. For instance, does the world look different when you are happy or sad? Does the traffic you are in seem worse when you are late or angry? Doesn’t the sun shine brighter when you are in love?

Cognitive perception can be manipulated too. Perhaps you are feeling blue because you are being laid off and losing your job? You might be feeling embarrassed, hurt or concerned about the future. It might feel like it’s the end of the world. But with a small twist of your point of view, the perspective might change. How does it compare on scale to other people or events around you? For example, how does the pain of losing your job compare to the illness or loss of a loved one? How would losing your job feel compared to, say, losing your ability to walk? Pretty small concern then.

Most visual and cognitive perception is unconscious. It’s not something we focus on as we slog through our daily routines. But for people in wheelchairs, perspective is often in the forefront. When you navigate the world on wheels, you have to think about how you get in a building, get out of bed, make breakfast, get into your car to get to work — how you do so many of the things able-bodied people take for granted.

The world looks different from a sitting position too. When you are in a wheelchair, you always have to look up to talk with your standing fiends and family. That shapes your perspective, both visual and cognitive.

So thinking about perspectives, one of the things that struck me most was the inspiring attitudes of Tamara Mena and Austin Whitney, the two exoskeleton test pilots we featured in our story. These two young people were both dealt major blows while in the prime of their lives. Both were vibrant and active teenagers when each was involved in catastrophic automobile accidents. Both had to deal with painful rehabilitations. And both faced a future where they probably would never walk again. And through that, both remain courageous, upbeat and positive. Where many might have given up, these two are charging into the future.

So put yourself in their shoes and think about what it might mean to be able to stand up and change your perspective. What would it mean to be able to look your friends in the eye, to stand and fully embrace your family again? Think about how the room looked different when you stood up from your computer.

The future of exoskeleton technology is marching forward. We saw Austin Whitney walk across the stage to receive his college diploma. More is hopefully on the way. Maybe someday soon we’ll also see paraplegics walking down the aisle at their weddings and walking onto airplanes to fly off on their honeymoons. Or less dramatically, maybe soon paraplegics will be able to regain the mundane pleasure of standing at the kitchen counter, making peanut butter sandwiches for their kids.

Fantasy? Too much to hope for? It’s all in your perspective.

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Web Extra – Tamara Mena: Exoskeleton Test Pilot

When she was 19 years old, Tamara Mena suffered a debilitating spinal injury that left her paralyzed from the chest down. Today she is working as an exoskeleton "test pilot" at Ekso Bionics, putting this new technology through its paces. Someday exoskeletons like the one she is testing may give paraplegics the ability to stand up and walk. This is her story.

Additional links:
Tamara Mena
Austin Whitney
Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory
Ekso Bionics
Tibion | Makers of the Tibion Bionic Leg
The Austin Exoskeleton Project at the University of California, Berkeley
Engineers to help paraplegic student walk at graduation
Berkeley Bionics to launch eLEGS

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Category: Engineering, Health, Television, Video

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Chris Bauer

About the Author ()

Chris Bauer is a Media Producer for QUEST. Chris has nearly 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in San Francisco.