The cool developments out of IREX 2009 keep coming. At the recent conference, Kobayashi Lab at Tokyo University of Science displayed its Muscle Suit, a light weight cybernetic exoskeleton that augments users' strength for lifting. There are two versions of the suit, one for upper body and back support and the other simply for lower back support. Each version can increase the lifting power of humans considerably. Kobalab demonstrated lifts of 50 kg (110 lbs) for the upper body suit and 15 kg (33 lbs) for the lower back suit. Weighing 8 kg or less, Muscle Suit is designed to be easily worn by nurses to help them move the sick or elderly, and it may see use in industrial settings for human workers that have to bend over to lift objects many times a day. While Kobalab hopes to have Muscle Suit available in the early part of 2010, it is still lagging behind more fully fledged cyborgs like Cyberdyne's HAL. Catch two video reviews of Muscle Suit after the break.
In some ways, comparing Muscle Suit to HAL is a bit unfair. They do attempt to accomplish much the same function, but with significantly different means. HAL uses nerve signals on the surface of the skin (myo-electric) to control a sophisticated electric servo system. Muscle Suit uses hand controls (seen in the first few seconds of the IDG News video) and pneumatically driven artificial muscles. These cylinders (made of rubber and nylon) expand and contract to move the carbon composite frame of the suit. It's a significantly less complicated system, but it also weighs about half as much as HAL. There's no real way to know if either exoskeleton will be successful in the global market, but I do get the feeling that they may appeal to different demographics. Those wanting a fully functional cybernetic experience are likely to go with HAL. Those who simply need a way to help their workers avoid back strain may go with Muscle Suit. Determining which is the better exoskeleton is likely to be somewhat subjective. In my mind the winner between the two will be the first company who ships me a version I can play with study extensively. Cyberdyne, Kobalab...I'm waiting.
[screen capture: IDG News]
[video: IDG News, DigInfo News]