Superhuman Sports November 2015
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Motorized wheelchairs and actively powered leg prostheses are banned in the Olympic and Paralympic competitions. But eventually, sports events might host augmented human competitors who perform superhuman athletic feats:
- The Superhuman Sports Academy plans to organize technology-enhanced sports events to accompany the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Of the three cofounders, two are celebrated UI researchers Jun Rekimoto and Masahiko Inami. An October 2015 demonstration event included a lacrosse-inspired game played on two-wheel, self-balancing, skateboard-like scooters. One of the organization's goals is to develop new and fair competitions among able-bodied and impaired users.
- Researchers at ETH Zurich are organizing a competition, the Cybathlon, which will take place in Zurich in 2016 and will be open to "pilots with disabilities"—bionic athletes who have impaired use of limbs and who make use of novel assistive technologies that aid in activities of daily living. For example, some athletes will be equipped with powered leg prostheses and robotic exoskeletons. Separate medals will go to athletes and technology providers.
Some technologies might serve multiple purposes: restoring abilities to people with impaired use of limbs, giving an edge to healthy competitors of average ability, and enabling top athletes to perform superhuman feats. During 2013, University of Pennsylvania engineering students demonstrated the Titan Arm, which uses a motor-driven cable to "add 40 lbs. curling capacity to existing muscle capacity," according to one of its inventors.
Various researchers are working to develop soft exoskeletons or exosuits that are "more like a Spider-Man suit than an Iron Man suit" (in the words of Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor Yong-Lae Park). In demonstrations, motors and cables or compressors and pneumatic tubes assist muscular motion by applying forces to form-fitting garments. The main motivation for development is to assist active duty military personnel as well as people with impaired use of limbs. But exosuits might also be suitable for augmented sports.
Another technology pathway might focus mainly on augmentation of able-bodied people. In 2014, Arizona State University researchers demonstrated a wearable jet pack that incorporates two rear-facing electric fans rotating at 1,000 times per second. A research subject apparently shaved 18 seconds off the time he normally requires to run 1 mile.
Wearable electrodes that stimulate abdominal muscles play roles in rehabilitation exercise, but their field of use might widen. The August 2015 edition of Medical Engineering & Physics contains a report from researchers who zapped able-bodied users at appropriate instants. Preliminary experiments indicate "low-intensity functional electrical stimulation is a simple and effective method for increasing trunk stiffness on demand." Imaginably, wearable electrostimulators will enable users who have impaired use of muscles to ride bicycles, and also improve the endurance of able-bodied cyclists.
The goal of placing able-bodied and impaired users on an even playing field could extend to a further goal of conducting fair competitions between robots and humans of varying abilities. Sooner or later, full-size robot soccer teams might well emerge from current competitions among miniatures. Appropriate design rules might ensure safe mixed human-robot competitions.