Last Friday evening in Tokyo, Wired Japan magazine hosted a talk-show on Cybathlon as a promotional event for their latest issue that includes a feature on “Swiss-made Innovation.” Comments by the panelists, consisting of two of the Japanese contestants in Cybathlon and the magazine’s journalists that covered the event in Switzerland, once again highlighted how impressive and meaningful Cybathlon is.
“I’ve competed in many different sports events for disabled athletes but I’ve never seen so much excitement” than at Cybathlon — these words of a Japanese “Pilot” who competed in the FES bike race were shared with the audience on Dec. 9 by Dr. Mark Kasuya, COO of Meltin MMI who led one of the Japanese teams. The Pilot, Mr. Yoshitsugu Ikai, is quite an athlete, competing in bouldering and wheelchair races despite the lower part of his body being paralyzed, so he has extensive experience and knowledge about such competitions. But even for him, Cybathlon was truly impressive, with the crowd cheering and wooing the Pilots in a dead-heat.
The journalists expressed their fascination with Cybathlon in comparison with other robot competitions. “The most decisive difference is that the end-users were competing, human to human, not robot to robot” said photographer Kazuma Obara. “Of course, robot competitions are exciting, too, but it’s more about marveling the technology,” whereas at Cybathlon, “it was a live sensation.”
Meanwhile, for the engineers and scientists, it was more than just fun and exciting. Cybathlon is special because there is no other occasion where technological experts and end-users can have in-depth exchange. “Although it’s a competition, everyone was friendly because we’re all on a mission to promote or accelerate the entire domain of assistive devices through Cybathlon. Other teams came around to give advice or offer support,” Kasuya looked back fondly.
Cybathlon provided an opportunity to learn about differences, too. Prof. Shuro Nakajima, who participated in the wheelchair race from Wakayama University was stunned to see that one team had designed their wheelchair to climb up and down the stairs so fast that the Pilot was clinging on hard to his seat in order to not fall off. “Safety is the No.1 priority in Cybathlon,” yet some people were boldly pursuing speed, the professor said. “In Japan, you could never pursue such an approach. There’s too much hesitation with people raising safety concerns. But Cybathlon made me realize that there are different ‘common senses’ and approaches in the world,” the professor who came in 4th place in his domain smiled. He will surely think more out of the box in the future.
Raising awareness and empowering society
The Q&A session evolved beyond Cybathlon as a one day event, into how technology is being used for the disabled in society and the society’s attitude towards the disabled. For example, Obara pointed out that “in Japan, elevators are made for the disabled. But then it’s left to the machine to help them” and this in turn, is actually isolating the disabled from the non-disabled. Raising such awareness among society and making the daily lives of the disabled easier is one of the main goals of Cybathlon.
Meltin MMI, whose goal is to eliminate physical barriers from the world, strongly believes Cybathlon’s ideals match theirs perfectly. They are using their technology to empower people in various ways. For instance, Dr. Kasuya was switching his presentation slides with the move of his fingers, using the company’s functional electrical simulation technology applied in the bike race. Such function could be beneficial also for the non-disabled. So you see, the possibilities are endless!