TOKYO - A few kilometers outside Tokyo, The HAL FIT gym attracts members from all over Japan, but not because of its treadmills or weight machines. The gym’s most popular piece of equipment is a robot suit, which straps around the lower-body and picks up on nerve activity, moving the wearer’s legs when they think about walking.
The gym is owned by Cyberdyne, a Japanese firm which manufactures a range of robotic limbs which help paralyzed patients regain their mobility.
“Controlling the robot limb felt weird at first, but I’m used to it now” said Mieko Kawakani, a retired postal worker who has trained at HAL FIT every week for the last six months.
Kawakani’s left leg was paralyzed after she suffered a double-stroke. Now, she makes slow circuits of the gym with the cyber-limb strapped to her leg. Her movements are somewhat jerky, and she can’t walk without robot assistance. But weeks of practice with HAL have enabled her to walk upright for the first time in years, she said.
Cyberdyne’s Hybrid Assisted Limb: or HAL, as it’s known for short, captures small electronic impulses sent from it wearer’s brain every time they attempt to move their legs. The signals are conveyed to braces strapped around the thighs and knees, which move the wearer’s leg like a mechanical device.
HAL’s creator, Yoshiyuki Sankai says that HAL has allowed paralyzed patients to recover damaged nerve connections, and regain the use of their limbs. “Unlike traditional physiotherapy, which is just moving limbs to recover muscles, the HAL limb gives the patient total feedback,” he said. “That’s what makes recovery possible.” Cyberdyne has sold HAL to over 130 Japanese hospitals since 2008, according to Sankai.
Because treatment using HAL is still unavailable in most Japanese hospitals, Cyberdyne opened the HAL FIT gym, where it offers its own customized treatment program. The gym’s sparse decoration, with a couple of treadmills and a weights machine, reflects the fact that the gym is aimed squarely at patients with limited mobility, who can practice walking along the gym’s guiding rail, whil watching constant feedback delivered by HAL on a flatscreen TV.
So far the gym has 145 registered members, some of whom travel several hours by car to reach the gym. “It’s more effective than any other treatment I’ve tried” Kawakani said. Members choose between a less intensive course which costs the equivalent of 100 dollars per hour, or an intensive course which sets members back 1000 dollars for five days of treatment.
A model of a full robot-suit dominates the lobby of Cyberdyne’s newly-built head quarters, a short walk from the HALFIT gym. A glass case filled with sci-fi toys and Manga comics attests to the adolescent inspirations of Cyberdyne founder Sankai, who decided to become a robot designer after reading the Isaac Asimov story “I, Robot.” At the age of 12, he started experimenting with dead frogs, fascinated by the fact that electrical currents could cause their legs to twitch. “I locked myself in my room, and carried out odd experiments day after day,” he wrote.
Sankai’s enthusiasm for the HALFIT gym comes second to his concern about nuclear safety, a sensitive topic in Japan following a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. The Japanese government has promised Cyberdyne 150 million dollars of funding to develop a Raditation proof robot suit, using the same technology as HAL, Sankai said.
Having a robot suit to enable workers to move under heavy radiation protection could have averted the meltdown at Fukushima, Sankai said. “In the first stage of the [Fukushima] accident, workers could have worn the suit to check on the generators,” he said. “The accident wouldn’t have been as bad”
Sankai sees a host of other applications for HAL, outside of the gym. “Carers in nursing homes could use robot arms to help with lifting patients,” he said. Several military-backed firms have expressed interest in adapting the HAL technology to design a robot suit for soldiers, according to Sankai. “A protective robot suit would be very useful for dealing with gas or bioweapons,” he said.
But Sankai is reluctant to donate his technology for military use. “I tell them I’m interested in other areas,” he said. With a geometrically shaved beard, looking every inch the inspired robot designer, he sums up his view of robotics: “Humans have limitations, so I want to make technology to support humans,” he said, before dashing off to deliver a lecture.
Pictures: Author, AFP.