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From Muscle Mapping To Robot Control, The Future Of Sports

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffJanuary 16, 2009 11:49 AM


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When I was but a wee nerd, when Star Wars was driving people to buy VCRs the way The Matrix would make them buy DVD players years later, a friend introduced me to the wonders of anime by playing a bootleg VHS tape in which two robots, piloted by people, battled for supremacy in outer space. (Describing an anime film like that is like trying to identify a specific Tom Cruise film by explaining that he plays the cocky young guy, but I digress). What made this movie stand out for me was how the robot was controlled. The pilot stood in a cokpit in the robots torso. He was attached to the robot by a series of straps that connected directly to the robot through the walls and ceiling. When he moved, the robot moved. Since he was some kind of martial arts super star, his robot was about as fine a defender of the universe as one could hope for, as long as the hero could overcome his psychological issues and fully self-actualize (If you recall the name of this anime, please oh please, comment and let me know what it is). So, obviously, we still haven't gotten around to inventing battle bots that can fight our wars for us, but if we did, we'd have a much better system for controlling the robot than silly straps. Motek Medical, a Dutch company, is getting us on our way by devising an optical system that not only does motion capture, but also tracks muscle force and torque. To use the system, dubbed CAREN, users put on a body suit (if you've ever seen a behind-the-scenes featurette from The Polar Express, you know what this is) with reflective sensors at crucial joints. Cameras around the room then pick up the location of the sensors and display a skinless body double on a large screen. The computer than applies a model of human motion based on measures conducted by Motek to display which muscles that are in use. Muscles that are in use turn green, and the more intense the green, more force they're exerting (This video makes it all clear). Motek has already installed the system in a couple of hospitals around the world to help patients recover from strokes or injury. But combining strapless motion capture with the ability to transmit the force of the muscles also advances the prospect of remote surgery, as well as more efficient remote operated vehicles that could be sent to other planets or to the bottom of the sea floor. And, of course, it also puts us one step closer to robot karate contests, which would make for some excellent programming on ESPN, if nothing else.

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