The moment 32 teams, millions of fans, and 156 scientists from around the world have been waiting for will take place in the heart and soul of soccer, Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the 2014 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony. In an effort to show Brazil is investing and has human potential in things that go beyond soccer, the country will have an unidentified paraplegic in a robotic Iron Man-like body suit deliver the inaugural kick. The futuristic exoskeleton, called the BRA-Santos Dumont, will be operated via the user’s brain signals, which is the result of 30 years’ work, more than 200 scientific papers, and countless clinical tests.
"It's the first time an exoskeleton has been controlled by brain activity and offered feedback to the patients," said Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University, to the Associated Foreign Press. Nicolelis started to investigate neural connections in muscular control in 1984 with his doctoral thesis, followed by the idea of the exoskeleton in 2002, a time when scientists were just beginning to probe robotic exoskeletons. The Brazilian doctor acknowledges doing this demonstration in a stadium is out of the ordinary for neuroscientists because it has never been done before.
The exoskeleton suit was developed as part of the Walk Again Project, nonprofit international collaboration of scientist and specialists, under the scientific command of Nicolelis. The project goal is to develop and implement brain-machine interface technology that allows paralyzed people, or those with restricted mobility, to regain movement of their limbs and sensory abilities through a mind-controlled outside device. Paraplegic victims suffer from paralysis of the lower half of the body, while those with quadriplegia, have paralysis below the neck, including both arms and legs.
The BRA-Santos Dumont, a combination of the three-letter sporting code for Brazil and Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator, inventor, and bon vivant, conveys the sensation of movement and contacy via an artificial skin worn on the arm that receives return signals from the electronic circuits in the device’s “feet.” It is craftily designed to read electrical signals produced in the brain. These signals are then converted to a motor control that can be employed by the machine before it sends it back to the brain, according to Scientific Computing.
When the wearer thinks of an action, for example, “I want to walk,” the electrical signals associated with this action are recorded and then decoded by a computer worn in a backpack to control the hydrolytic drivers of the suit that produce the movement. "What happens when you practice for a long time is that the brain starts associating the movements of the legs with the vibration in the arm. So the patient starts developing the sensation that he has legs and that he is walking,” Nicolelis told the BBC.
The neuroscientist believes the World Cup is the perfect venue for the whole world to see a technology that can revolutionize movement for three million spinal cord injury patients across the world. More than 65,000 people are expected to be at Sao Paulo's Corinthians Arena to watch the first steps of the exoskeleton before Brazil plays Croatia in the opening match. Billions will watch from home.