Are cybathlons the future of sport?

As the Paralympics drew to a close this week, the next sporting event on the horizon is set to be the most high-tech yet. Taking place in October, the Cybathlon will see disabled athletes pair up with bionics, brain-computer interfaces and high-powered exoskeletons to see how far humans and machines can go (and how fast) when they fuse together.

At London’s FutureFest last weekend, visitors got the chance to see some of the Cybathlon technology up close and personal, and try it out for themselves.

Brain-computer interfaces

FutureFest’s simple demo of brain-computer interface involved a NeuroSky MindWave headset, which rests against your head and forehead and clips to your earlobe. The brainwave-sensing headset enables users to play simple games based around focus, calm and concentration. One of the games we tried involves thinking up mathematical sums in order to explode an on-screen barrel; another sees the headset track calmness, via deep breathing exercises. 

The Cybathlon will include a brain-computer interface race (using much more complex games, of course).

Gaze tracking 

Gaze tracking no longer has to involve intrusive cameras and headsets: FutureFest’s demo simply involves sitting in front of a screen. After setting up the accuracy of the gaze tracking camera via a simple point-and-click game in which you splat ants, users can direct their gaze around the screen to splat the ants just by looking at them. This technology is being developed as an alternative method of control for wheelchair users, who would be able to direct their wheelchair simply by looking at where they want to go.

Haptic tech

The haptic tech demo focused on applying pressure to the finger and thumb, so that it feels as though you are picking up objects and moving them around – when, in fact, you’re touching thin air. Using a VR headset, you’re sent into a virtual environment in which you can interact with blocks of wood, plastic cubes, apples and balls. And you really will feel as though you’re touching them – or knocking them over, or throwing them gleefully around.

FES bike

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) bikes enable users with spinal cord injuries to move their paralysed limbs, by placing electrodes on the skin and applying a current to the muscle. At FutureFest, a simple demo enabling you to move your legs using your arms was on offer. At the Cybathlon, there will be a full FES bike race, and pilots in the race will be using non-motorised machines, so that they must win by muscle power and stamina alone.

The Cybathlon championship will take place on 8th October at the Swiss Arena in Kloten, Switzerland. The event is organised by ETH Zurich.

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