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Thanks to a specially-designed 'Iron Man' suit, a paralyzed person will be able to stand and deliver the first kick off of the 2014 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament.

Paralyzed person to kick off the World Cup, thanks to robotic exoskeleton

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Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 9:43 AM - Updated: Excitement is certainly building for the June 12 kick off of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, but one person may be more excited than anyone else. Using a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton, likened to the 'Iron Man' suit worn by Marvel's Tony Stark, one of eight paralyzed Brazilians is going to stand up from their wheelchair and make the first kickoff of the tournament.

Back in 2008, an international group of scientists started the Walk Again Project, to develop systems to allow paralyzed people to walk again. The result of this collaboration has been CellulARSkin technology - an artificial skin, studded with sensors, that can give tactile feedback to whoever wears it, allowing them to feel the sensation of touch. Developed by Professor Gordon Cheng, who heads up the Institute for Cognitive Systems at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), in Germany, CellulARSkin started out from researchers recording the movement of a monkey on a treadmill, then using that information to produce sensors that allowed a humanoid robot to walk the same way. From there, they've used this basic idea to develop a robotic exoskeleton that can help people to walk again.

Credit: Miguel Nicolelis/Walk Again Project

Credit: Miguel Nicolelis/Walk Again Project

However, while the individual sensors are very important for the system, according to Cheng, it's how all the sensors communicate and cooperate with each other that makes the system work so well.

For the exoskeleton being used during the opening of the World Cup on June 12, the CellulARSkin sensors have been fully integrated into the suit, including on the soles of the feet. They will relay readings of the person's status to the medical team, in case they experience any pain or discomfort, but their primary use will be to translate the contact of the person's feet with the ground into vibrations against the their arms. It takes training to get used to it, but as Cheng said in a statement: "Our brains are very adaptive in the way that we can extend our embodiment to use tools," likening it to how we drive a car, or use chopsticks to eat.

Exactly which of the eight people will be the one to deliver the first kick of the World Cup is a closely-guarded secret at the moment. However, regardless of which one gets the honour, it will be a great day for science and technology.

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