Pimp Your Artificial Limb with the Open Prosthetics Project

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pimp my arm
Oh yeah…the OPP is the place to be for innovation and creation to make your artificial limb a sensation.

We all have those moments when we look at a commercial gadget and think: “you know what this thing really needs is a…” Now imagine that gadget is an artificial limb that you will attach to your body for hours a day, everyday, for the rest of your life. You’d probably have thousands of those moments. The Open Prosthetics Project is a forum where people with artificial limbs, or those interested in working with them, can discuss and share innovations for their devices. Want to make a prototype limb out of Lego? Need a quick way to model a residual limb? OPP is the place to find the community and expertise to help you. They even have a “Pimp My Arm Forum” to satisfy your tinkering day dreams. Check out some of OPP’s cool pics, videos, and links below.

Open source development has the potential to be very fruitful, with big name successes like Linux providing inspiration. We’ve also seen emerging trends in robotics lead by Willow Garage and their work with amazing research robots and operating software (ROS). Similar developments in synthetic biology are led by MIT’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts, iGEM, and the OpenWetWare wiki. The Open Prosthetics Project isn’t quite up to these standards yet. They’re very spread out – you have to track them across Google Groups, Ning, and Instructables to really get a handle on everything going on with the community – and there’s less than 300 members. Still, the range and creativity of their projects speaks volumes to the potential OPP has to lead a revolution in prosthetics from the user-base up.

open prosthetics project lego hook
Materials like Lego work as a means for prototyping some of the ideas at the OPP.

OPP is the brainchild of Jonathan Kuniholm, an Iraq War veteran and engineer at DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. We mentioned his work during a discussion on Deka’s Luke Arm, and Kuniholm was kind enough to comment on the story. Kuniholm’s work at DARPA features myoelectrics (muscle sensing technology) and advanced pattern recognition, but the projects highlighted on OPP run the gamut from very simple to extremely complex.

One of my favorite OPP programs is the Lego Hand. Developers are trying to find ways to build a prototype arm and hand from standard Lego components. I’ve seen some cool Lego constructions before, but this idea could really make a big impact in people’s lives. In the following video John Bergmann demonstrates a fully articulated Lego Hand he’s been working on. Eventually the group wants to have a powered upper body limb with myoelectric sensors.

As you’d expect from any social network, OPP doesn’t just serve to develop original content, it also highlights useful innovations from outside the community. On OPP’s Instructables channel you can find this short video of a way to form a mold of a residual limb in just 30 seconds. Wow! The original concept comes from work at Northwestern University.

Explore OPP and you may be surprised by what and even who you find. Bre Pettis, one of the founders of open source 3D Printing company MakerBot, has solicited input from OPP to see if 3D Printing might help with prosthetics and prototyping. I really hope something happens there. I would love to see amputees be able to print out prototype prosthetics for testing at just a fraction of traditional costs.

OPP is still in its early stages of development. This isn’t a hardened cadre of engineers, or a professional company with open source ideals, it’s a forum with a common goal. We shouldn’t expect another Smart Hand or Luke Arm to suddenly spring out of OPP overnight. What we may see is a place where the people who have to live with artificial limbs day in and day out get a chance to direct their own innovation. That may lead to some inexpensive, creative, and infinitely practical solutions to the challenges amputees face with their devices. Prosthetics companies should look to OPP not as a competitor, but as a resource that could highlight where the future of artificial limbs may need to be headed. Eventually, though, OPP could develop into something more. If enough experts join the community, or enough people in the community gain expertise, OPP could arise as a competitor, even as an industry leader. No matter what the outcome I’m fascinated by the craftiness and ingenuity of the OPP. Go and check it out for yourself.

sean mchugh
OPP member Sean McHugh demonstrates one of the many uses of a standard arm hook. Hey, even innovators need to unwind.

[image credits: OPP, Sean McHugh]

[source: OPP]