Cyberdyne brought their powered lower-body robotic exoskeleton 'HAL' to CES this year, and for the first time, they let an American put it on. That American happened to be me, and for about ten minutes, I was Iron Man.
Cyberdyne's HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) exoskeleton is designed to augment the strength of the wearer by a factor of up to ten. The suit senses when you want to move your legs, and then it moves them for you, supporting both its weight and yours as it walks around with you in it. Primarily, it's designed for the elderly who may have problems walking, but it's adaptable to many different tasks. HAL has been around for quite a while, but this is the first time it's been to CES, and I'm the first person here in the US to be able to try it out in person.
The demo takes place after breakfast in a small and incredibly ugly conference room in the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. I meet with Takatoshi Kuno, the Sales Division Manager of Cyberdyne Inc., who has agreed to show me how HAL works. It's just him; putting the exoskeleton on and getting it set up requires the help of one single guy who knows what he's doing, no more.
Step one is to attach the sensors that HAL will use to tell when I want to move my legs. I drop my pants and they wire me up, carefully placing two electrodes on each of my thighs, two on my quads, and one on either side of my waist. The hip motors require an additional three electrodes per side, but from what I could understand, attaching those would have involved some fairly intimate groping, and Kuno-san didn't seem so inclined (not that I blame him).
Once the electrodes are attached, I get dressed again, and go over to a couple chairs. The suit is splayed out across them, looking like some sort of dead robot, which I guess is exactly what it was. I'm starting to get kinda freaked out, realizing that I'm about to be strapped into a device that's going to have total control over my lower body. I mean, what if it decides to suddenly rebel against its masters and run for it with me inside?
To put the suit on, I sit down on the chairs in between its legs. The electrodes get attached to wiring on the suit, I'm velcroed in, and a battery pack is snapped on to the suit at the small of my back. Foot support comes from special shoes that are attached to the suit, and they're made for Japanese people, meaning that they're about nine sizes too small for my size 13 feet. I curl my toes, suck it up, and make it work anyway. HAL connects wirelessly to a laptop, and it begins to boot, a process which takes 40 seconds or so. At this point, not knowing what to expect, I'm starting to hyperventilate.
The boot process finishes, at which point the suit requires some calibration. There are controls on the hips to adjust the power going to the motors, and after fiddling with them for a minute, Kuno-san asks me to try to extend my leg. As I tense my leg muscles, I can hear and then feel HAL's motors kick in with a high tech electric whine, and my leg slowly rises off the floor and extends itself as I watch it. It's pretty freaking cool. All I'm doing is thinking about moving my leg to the point where my muscles start to kick in, and then the suit picks up on that and does all the work.
At this point, I'm busy staring at my leg and giggling like an idiot. My leg is fully extended out in front of me, something that gets tiring pretty quickly (try it). I'm not getting tired, because my muscles aren't doing any work: it's all the suit. Lowering my leg is as easy as raising it; I just let my quad relax and my calf starts to tense, and the suit slowly returns my leg to where it was.
Kuno-san pushes some buttons on the suit's hip controls, gives me a little smile, and tells me to try it again. I start to tense my muscles and then WHAM! My leg rockets straight out in front of me in what feels like about a millisecond. This is when it really hits me: I'm actually wearing a powered exoskeleton, and it's entirely possible that at this moment, I have the strongest legs on the entire planet.
Kuno-san turns the suit down again to a more reasonable level, since I'm now supposed to try to get up and walk. I get a frame-thing to hang on to while I try to stand, which comes in handy since my first attempt is a failure. HAL is doing all of the muscle work which throws my balance way off, and it takes some practice to know what to expect. I make it on attempt number two, and the suit locks its joints to keep me upright. Sitting down is easy, since the suit kicks in to support as much of my body weight as possible, gently depositing my butt in the chair. I practice this routine a couple times, and then it's time to walk.
Walking with My New Legs
From a standing position, walking just involves thinking 'walk' up to the point where your leg muscles start to do their thing, and then the suit figures out what you want and moves your legs accordingly. At first, I don't really get this, and I try to move my legs by myself. It's not intentional, but my brain simply isn't accustomed to having something else do my walking for me. As it turns out, the best way to walk in HAL seems to be to just be super lazy and rely completely on the suit to take over for as many of your muscles as it possibly can.
This is not to say that HAL is just some mindless leg moving machine. In fact, it's the opposite. HAL pays close attention to your muscle movements and can actually sense how much muscle you're planning to apply, and it calculates how much power to add and moves its motors before your muscles move on their own. This means that that you still have complete control over when you take a step, where you take a step, and the length and height of your stride. When you get the hang of it, which took me barely five minutes, it's really just like walking, except using robot muscles instead of your own.
After just a minute or two of walking, Kuno-san leads me over to some stairs, and up I go. Stairs involve balancing on one leg, which is a bit challenging, especially without HAL's hip joints active. The suit can't do your balancing for you completely, but it does help: it has accelerometers in it which constantly calculate your center of gravity, and the suit will do what it can to keep you stable. The especially cool thing about going up stairs is that I can really feel the power behind the suit, even with it turned down. To get from one stair to the next I have to lift my entire body weight with one leg, and HAL does this without the least hesitation. As it turns out, I'm using HAL with it set on level one, and it goes all the way up to level four.
After a few trips up and down the stairs and some more walking around, I'm feeling totally comfortable in HAL. The suit supports its own weight, so it effectively weighs nothing when you have it on, and when you stop trying to walk with your legs and let the suit move them for you, the entire experience becomes virtually seamless. And then just when I'm starting to relax, it's time to sit down and take the suit off. I'm incredibly sad as HAL powers down and returns to its limp, dead robot look... I was only in it for ten minutes, but it already feels a little bit like a part of me.
I get up to thank Kuno-san and nearly fall over as my muscles completely fail to wake up from that lazy state that worked with the suit. Kuno-san laughs and says that this is normal, and that my balance will come right back, and (thankfully) it does.
The upper half of HAL, which is still in development, does the same basic thing except for your arms in addition to your legs. The torso enables humans to lift up to ten times what they would normally be able to, and is designed to make life easier for farm and factory workers and other people who have to lift heavy things for a living.
HAL is currently for rent in Japan for about $1,500 per month, which is shockingly reasonable. I mean, how much would you pay to be able to put on a suit that makes you ten times as strong as you are now? You'd quite literally be a cyborg superhero. It's not comic books, it's not movies, this thing exists and it works, I can personally attest to that. And as with any new technology, from here on the price is going to go down while the availability goes up, so there's a real possibility that something like HAL may make it out of industrial and medical settings and just be something that you can go rent at your local hardware store when you have yard work to do or furniture to move or a bank to rob. It may sound crazy, but I promise you, it's not.
Cybernetic exoskeletons, man. They're getting real. Welcome to the future.