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September 12, 2016updated 03 Oct 2016 4:22pm

World’s first bionic Olympics turns spotlight on tech & disability with brain-powered computer games

Cybathlon will involve 50 teams competing over six disciplines.

By Hannah Williams

The world’s first bionic Olympics, dubbed the Cybathlon, will see athletes with physical disabilities compete in six demanding disciplines using the latest assistive tech on October 8.

Organised by the Swiss university ETH Zurich, there will be a total of 50 teams battling it out in six disciplines. The six disciplines include a a Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) bicycle race, a Powered Leg Prosthesis Race, a Powered Wheelchair Race, a Powered Exoskeleton Race, a Powered Arm Prosthesis Race, and a Brain-Computer Interface race.

Competitors will race using robotic exoskeletons, powered wheelchairs and powered arm and leg prosetheses, with the various races designed to test how the competitors cope with specific challenges and activities from everyday life.

There is even a race designed to allow competitors with paralysis and quadriplegia to control a computer game using brain waves. The Cybathlon BCI race allows competitors to control avatars through a specially developed computer game. Pilots have to send the appropriate signals at the right time in order to jump over obstacles or accelerate, whereas incorrect signals will lead to slowing or crashing.

David Rose, who will be competing in the BCI race as part of the University of Essex’s rival Brainstormer team, will wear a cap covered in electrodes that will detect his brain activity and send the readings to the computer game. Speaking to the BBC, he said:

“It’s surprisingly exhausting. To move my avatar I have to think of specific thoughts without thinking of anything else.”

Mr Rose has been training for almost two years in preparation for the brain interface race.

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The event, which will be held near Zurich, is aimed to highlight how people with physical disabilities can be helped with the use of technological aids in their everyday activities. The brainchild of ETH Zurich and NCCR Robotics professor Robert Riener, the event was created with three goals in mind:  to facilitate conversation between academia and industry, to facilitate discussion between technology developers and people with disabilities and to promote the use of robotic assistive aids to the general public. Speaking to ETH News, Mr Riener said:

“Besides overcoming reservations about the field, we want to motivate developers to create technologies that provide real support to people in daily life. That is why the races feature everyday obstacles, such as stairs, ramps and doors. We hope Cybathlon’s competitive nature will boost the development of powered assistive technology in the long term. It’s already having a positive impact: new student groups have been formed and research projects have emerged. Both students and researchers are working at full speed on their prototypes.”

The Cybathlon may take place in the UK next year, if October’s event is a success.


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