What's a Cybathlon?

The Bionic Olympics

Drawing of the Cybathlon's powered arm prosthesis event in action
Drawing of the Cybathlon's powered arm prosthesis event in action

The Cybathlon's proposed disciplines each speak to a different technological challenge and will use a pilot with impairments specific to the discipline. Although the competition has drafted guidelines for the technology that can be used, the actual devices and equipment are still being developed (and are sure to be awesome).

The event for powered arm prostheses will test dexterity by using a conductive wire loop to carefully follow another wire; if the wires touch, a signal will go off indicating the participant has to start over (looking at the accompanying picture gives you a good idea of how this will go). Pilots will also handle objects that require different grips; a pilot must use one object to reach the next. The pilots for this competition must have a forearm amputation, and will use an actuated exoprosthetic device that's fully autonomous. (An actuator is just the part that makes the device capable of movement. A motor is a typical example.)

Then there's the functional electronic stimulation bike race, where pilots who have spinal cord injuries will ride bikes powered by electronic stimulation to their legs. These bikes use small electrical pulses to stimulate muscle movement, allowing paraplegic or quadriplegic pilots to pedal. The athletes will compete in both a sprint and an endurance race using the cycles.

Next up is the powered exoskeleton race, which also will feature an obstacle course. The pilot must have a spinal cord injury and be outfitted with a full exoskeleton device that will allow pilots with leg paralysis to physically walk through the course. And remember the technology must be fully operated by the pilot: no remote-controlled action from another person.

The powered wheelchair race involves an obstacle course, too. Although it's for people who are regular wheelchair users, don't expect "regular" wheelchairs. They're fully powered and will have to navigate a course of steps, elevations and various road surfaces, among other things. The pilots will have total control over the chair.

Sketch of the Cybathlon's proposed brain-computer interface race Sketch of the Cybathlon's proposed brain-computer interface race
Sketch of the Cybathlon's proposed brain-computer interface race

The final discipline might really blow your mind. The brain-computer interface race is straight out of science fiction. The pilots must have complete loss of motor function below the neck, and thus have severe spinal cord injuries. So how the heck are they going to compete against each other in a computer game that simulates either a horse or car race?

The pilots will be racing with their minds. Seriously. Brain-computer interfaces allow a person's "thoughts" -- translated from an electroencephalograph (EEG) that measures electrical activity in your brain -- to coordinate with a specific function of a computer or machine. So software can "learn" the EEG pattern you make when thinking about moving your hand to the left -- and move the hand on the screen, in turn.

Intrigued? You can buy your tickets in 2016.

Author's Note: What's a Cybathlon?

To learn more about the Cybathlon, I'd encourage you to visit the Web site. It's hard to imagine what some of the technology looks like when it hasn't been fully released yet, and the site has interesting conceptual renderings of the prospective competitive technology.

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  • Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. "Functional Electronic Stimulation." (April 6, 2014) http://www.christopherreeve.org/site/c.mtKZKgMWKwG/b.4453425/k.27A5/Functional_Electrical_Stimulation.htm
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