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AUDIO: The man behind Cybathlon, Professor Robert Riener

We spoke to Professor Robert Riener to discuss his motivation for founding Cybathlon, the global popularity of it so far and how the team at NCCR Robotics came up with the term.

5 key points to take away:

  1. The motivation to form Cybathlon was that: “a lot of developments do not satisfy the real needs of the patient who are using a wheelchair that can still not climb stairs or are wearing knee prostheses which are not actuated and make it cumbersome to climb ramps or stairs”
  2. The organisers wanted to call the event the Cyberlympics, but were forbidden by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who have strict regulations on using terms related to the Olympics. They will go back to the IOC in the future to see if some agreement can be made for future editions of Cybathlon.
  3. He is amazed by the reaction to Cybathlon, especially how well the public have responded to a new term. Since they coined the phrase, a search on Google now shows 50,000 links and several news organisations have publicised the event.
  4. They have had 50 binding registrations for Cybathlon so far, and need between 80 and 100 teams to have enough people in each discipline competing against each other.
  5. Broadcasters from UK, USA, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan have shown an interest in making documentaries on Cybathlon or live broadcasting the event

Image: Courtesy of Ekso Bionics™


BCI pilot told he’s ineligible

Jonathan Brough was one of the first people to sign up for Cybathlon. Now, two months on, he’s been told he can’t compete.

The reason? He has a pacemaker.

Given how excited he was about competing, he’s understandably gutted about the news, but ensures us he is talking to his GP to work out a way for him to be eligible again. At present, this leaves Team Imperial, involving scientists at Imperial College, pilot-less.

“Due to the fact that I have a pacemaker the organisers are saying, for safety reasons, I can no longer take part,” he told us.

“I’m still working with Imperial College in designing and testing and intend to go to Cybathlon 2016, its just that at this point I will not be allowed to take part in the races. I have discussed this with my G.P. who is currently looking into it.”

Linda Seward, of NCCR Robotics, explained the ruling to us:

“The reason for the exclusion criteria for pacemakers is that as the participating devices may not be CE certified they may interfere with a pacemaker, so it’s a safety precaution.”

If you didn’t read our original interview with Jonathan, he contracted meningitis in 2007 and has been paralysed ever since.  Now 26, he lives near Stroud with two round-the-clock carers, but did not let it stop him completing a degree at Plymouth University.

As part of his preparation for Cybathlon, he had just started learning how to use a BCI, as he normally speaks with air from his ventilator. To control his wheelchair he uses a lip joystick, but the Rio Tinto team had been developing eye control for him.

Fortunately, Jonathan has found something to take his mind off the disappointment.

“I’m still finding it difficult to understand their decision but am hoping to go skiing in Milton Keynes next week.”

For a former skiing enthusiast, that is certain to lift his mood.

Jonathan Brough is aided by his carers.

Team effort: Jonathan Brough is aided by his carers.

Images: Courtesy of Jonathan Brough


VIDEO: Brainstormers and BCIs: On your marks, set… think!

Deep in the bowels of Essex University, sitting far below the student hubbub of shops, bars and hangovers, some of the most intelligent researchers in the country are plotting.

Plotting new ways to improve the lives of thousands of disabled people. Plotting innovative technologies which have never been seen before. Plotting their assault on the 2016 Cybathlon championship.

The aptly named Brainstormers, a team of scientists at the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, will be competing in next year’s event as an aside from their revolutionary studies into brain computer interfaces (BCIs).

Hidden away down a few damp flights of stairs and a long, thin corridor filled with identical doors and not much noise, it would be easy to forget that the Brainstormers are living on the front lines of one of the most exciting pieces of technology in the UK.

Song-Jae wears a cap used to capture brain activity

Feeling wired: Youngjae Song gets ready to test the BCI

BCIs are still developing, but they essentially allow the Brainstormers (and others across the world such as scientists at the Center for Integrative Neuroscience at Berkeley and the Life Science Center in Tokyo) to capture brain signals and turn them into commands.

In other words, they let you communicate without speaking or moving – meaning humans will be able to operate computers, robots or virtual reality environments using just neurosignals, even if they have no control of their muscles.

The Brainstormers team consists of five PhD students: team leader Ana Matran-Fernandez, Youngjae Song, Davide Valeriani, Amir Jahangiri, Dimitrios Andreou and Cambridge University’s Christian O’Connell. Working alongside them are Dr. Javier Asensio-Cubero and Dr. Francisco Sepulveda.

The Brainstormers team: (From left to right) Youngjae Song, Dr Francisco Sepulveda (lower row), Ana Matran-Fernandez, Davide Valeriani, Dr Javier Asenso-Cubero

Game-changers: (From left to right) Youngjae Song, Dr Francisco Sepulveda (lower row), Ana Matran-Fernandez, Davide Valeriani, Dr Javier Asenso-Cubero

Matran-Fernandez says the technology – if developed properly – can have a massive impact on those that need help communicating and says Cybathlon will be the perfect place to showcase the potential of these interfaces.

“We think Cybathlon is going to be really good for BCIs,” she said.”So when we read about Cybathlon we thought it would be a great way to get known by external people and try to help.

“It’s going to expose the field so more people will know about it and that’s great because they have the potential to do a lot of good.”

BCIs won’t just be shaping the field for disabled people, though. As Sepulveda points out, they could also have a huge impact on the gaming industry as companies and competitors look for new, imaginative ways to test themselves.

The disparity between ideal brainwaves and typical signals shows how difficult the task is

Nature of the beast: The disparity between ideal brainwaves and typical signals shows how difficult the task is

With the support of BioSemi, one of the nation’s leading electro-physiologic equipment suppliers, the team are currently on the hunt for a pilot to compete as part of the Brainstormers team.

“Between now and Cybathlon, we will first be looking for more sponsors and we’ll also be looking for a pilot, which is the main difficulty at this point,” Matran-Fernandez says.

“Other than that, we’re going to be training hard for the mock test and hopefully we will have someone to help do that. Once we do, we’ll know how things are and we’ll be able to be more specific with our preparation.”

But how does it work? We were shown into a small windowless room in a corner where the machine was kept as Youngjae Song put the equipment on – a lovely piece of gear which looked like a washed-out red swimming cap, except it was crawling with worm-like wires, which pick up the neurosignals.

“When you’re using the interface, you display something on the screen and you can time the brain signals based on what is being played and interpret them one way or the other,” Matran-Fernandez explains.

Although their game involves either a car or a horse, which pilots have to turn round obstacles and past corners, that may change in the competition itself.

“We don’t really know what Cybathlon is going to be like but what we’re expecting is some sort of track and racing video game which the pilot sees on his screen.  What we think is going to happen is that the person has to drive the car to the left or the right,” she says as we watch the game in motion.

“We will ask them to think and move the car, so they think of moving their left hand or foot, or right hand or foot and the car will move in that direction. That’s one of the several types of games there are.”

Song-Jae plays a BCI game designed by the Brainstormers team

Head in the game: Youngjae Song locks into the BCI

Of course, it’s not completely flawless technology at the moment, as Dr. Asensio-Cubero points out.

“It’s not really accurate or reliable – you may get 60 per cent accuracy or maybe 80 per cent if the subject is really good,” he says. “This event requires a really high standard of pilot.”

Another way of working with BCIs is to examine “P300” signals – brainwaves which appear soon after the presentation of a stimulus of interest, according to Matran-Fernandez.

“So if you’re shown what we call ‘distractors’, and you see the thing you’re looking for which is of interest, your brain produces these signals and the computer will know what you’re interested in.

“Based on that, there are games called ‘Spellers’. With these, there are lots of rows of letters or numbers, and when a row or column which contains the letter you want flashes we can see it on the screen.”

Sound simple? Maybe. Does it look simple? Not at all. These rows and numbers flashed at such speed that it was exhausting just looking at it, let alone trying to spell a word by focusing on individual symbols.

But with a skilled and experienced pilot, it’s clear to see how this technology could change the lives of people who are ‘locked-in’ and cannot communicate in other way.

“It’s for people who cannot even move their eyes,” says Asensio-Cubero. Nothing hits home how important their work is better than that sentence.

BCIs are perhaps the most iconic event in Cybathlon – nothing else pushes the boundaries of technology quite so far. Although crouching in the basements of Colchester with barely any natural light certainly adds to the experience, it’s clear to see that this is a remarkable concept using remarkable technology. And, frankly, as we watched Song twist and turn a virtual car on a virtual track using just his thoughts, it’s fair to say that it’s remarkably cool.

If you think you would be a suitable pilot for the Brainstormers, get in touch with them here: http://essexbcis.uk/contact-us/

And listen to the extended chat with the team:

Image: Sam Dean

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Cybathlon – what’s that?

Don’t worry, you really aren’t the only person who has no idea what Cybathlon is. From an initial survey, ideas for what it could possibly be were varied, from a “marathon on the internet” to a “triathlon with different forms of cycling”.

Judging by the red line that currently appears underneath the word Cybathlon, Microsoft doesn’t have a clue what it is either. And to be totally honest with you – our readers – neither did we until a fortnight ago.

But in a short space of time, with the help of the team at NCCR Robotics (a group of robotics-focused Swiss institutes who are the presenting sponsors of Cybathlon) and the following trailer, we have become completely enthralled by this idea:

Over the next two years the world will gradually be introduced to the concept, and in October 2016 the spotlight will shine on Zurich for the world’s very first Cybathlon.

The idea of Cybathlon explained

The Cybathlon will be the first championship for bionic athletes, from leg or arm amputees to those with such severe disabilities they are confined to a wheelchair or an exoskeleton (essentially a full-body robotic suit).

We sought the help of Linda Seward, Communications Officer at NCCR Robotics, to explain how the idea emerged.

“It came about from Robert Riener, who is a professor at ETH Zurich, who studies prosthetics and how to get prosthetics to work with the person,” she said.

“A lot of the prosthetics that you have now are hard, difficult to wear, they’re certainly something you can only wear for a few hours, and it’s very uncomfortable trying to wear things all day.

“We’re at a point where we’ve got lots of different technologies which are really, truly fantastic, and can do amazing things. But they’re not ready to send out to market yet, there needs to be more development.

She added that the project was about ‘taking state-of-the-art robotics technologies and making them usable’.

How will Cybathlon work?

Teams consisting of one athlete and a group of technicians will come together from across the world to compete in the following six disciplines:

The timed tasks that the athletes (or pilots, as the founders like to call them) are required to carry out are based around daily life, from sitting down on a sofa in an exoskeleton and standing back up again, to navigating a gravel path in a wheelchair.

This is where Cybathlon differs from the Paralympics, which mainly celebrates the fastest or strongest para-athletes.

“We want to enable people to be able to use their body again. And we want people to understand that that’s what we’re doing so that people get behind it, and are excited by it,” said Linda.

Cybathlon really is about the average disabled person, and gearing the development of robotic technology to help them.

Image: Courtesy Ekso Bionics™