Switzerland Will Host Cybathlon, The World's First Bionic Olympics, In 2016
Two years from now in Switzerland, crowds will gather to cheer on some very unique athletes. They'll watch with growing trepidation as exoskeleton-clad warriors compete against one another in feats of strength. They'll cheer on racers outfitted with bionic and prosthetic limbs. They'll find their attention held by a virtual battle of wills, in which brain interface-outfitted competitors square off against one another.
This, ladies and gentlemen, will be the world's first Cybathlon - an Olympic competition held entirely in the interest of promoting and exploring the limits of performance-enhancing technology. There will be races for those with arm or leg prosthetics, as well as an exoskeleton race and a wheelchair race. The athletes - known as pilots- will be allowed to wear assistive devices that are already commercially available, or outfit themselves with prototypes from research labs.
So far this sounds a lot like a more technologically advanced version of the Paralympics, doesn't it? That's no accident, either. The Cybathlon shares a great deal in common with the Paralympic Games - not in the least because both events are designed to provide disabled athletes with the chance to prove they're every bit as capable as the physically disabled.
The Cybathlon, however, has an additional goal aside from that. Hosted by the Swiss National Competence Center of Research, it's hope that the Cybathlon will spur further interest in performance-enhancing (and assistive) technology. To that end, each event will feature two different medals: one for the winning pilot, and the other for the company that developed the pilot's technology.
Perhaps the most fascinating event at the Cybathlon Games involves a brain-computer interface race, designed for those paralyzed from the neck down. Here, the competitors will each control an avatar in a computer racing game via a headset connecting their brain to the system. Presumably, whoever has the greatest mental fortitude - and hence the best control over their device - will emerge victorious.
Bionic technology is becoming more advanced with each passing day, but there's still one glaring problem with it that needs to be addressed: a disconnect between patient and hardware. For that reason, many in the field of bionic research welcome the Cybathlon, in hopes that it will serve to bridge the gap and make the technology more widely-available (and more useful) to patients who require it.
"The idea is that we want to push development of assistive technologies towards devices that patients can use in everyday life," explained Professor Robert Riener from the University of Switzerland. Riener, head of the Sensory Motor Systems Lab, is also one of the key event organizers for the Cybathlon."Some of the current technologies look very fancy but are a long way from being practical and user-friendly," he continued, adding that another main focus of the games is to give people who've never before had the opportunity a chance to compete.
"We allow technology that has previously been excluded from the Paralympics. By making it a public event we want to get rid of the borders between patients, society and the technology community."
Come 2016, this is definitely going to be something to watch; hopefully it'll have exactly the effect Riener and his colleagues desire. Those of you who are interested in reading more about the Cybathlon Games can visit the website, located here. For posterity's sake, I've attached the official trailer for the event below.