These real Iron Man shoes gave me a mechanical spring in my step

The future of assisted walking may not come from a cane or walking frame, but instead from a pair of exoskeleton robotic shoes.

That’s the vision of researchers at Stanford University’s Biomechatronics Lab, who have developed the first untethered exoskeleton designed to give people a robotic nudge to their stride while walking. You come to Stanford for CNET What’s the future A video series to put exoskeletons through their paces (quite literally) and see if it’s possible to enhance my superhero-style brisk walking.

Patrick Slade, the postdoctoral researcher behind the exoskeleton design, has given me a lot of hope in this area.

Close-up of the mobile ankle exoskeleton, developed by Stanford University’s Biomechatronics Lab.

Kurt Heckman/Stanford University

“This is Iron Man in the real world,” he says. “It’s basically a robotic shoe. … By replacing your calf function with a motor, we can really enhance your stride and help you walk more easily and more quickly.”

The exoskeleton fits over your foot in a regular shoe (although it’s modified with sensors), which attaches to the calf via a carbon fiber strut and wire. As you walk, a motor behind the calf winds a cord attached to the shoe, allowing you to push off the ground more easily.

But the extra secret of this exoskeleton is that it learns the way you walk, the longer you wear it. A machine learning system built into each shoe takes input from sensors throughout the exoskeleton to understand how your ankle moves and when your foot hits the ground. Then it adapts the motor and power to customize the lift to your gait.

An image of an empty chest strap and leg supports hanging above a treadmill inside a laboratory that allows researchers to test walking in a controlled environment.

The Exoskeleton Simulator allows Stanford researchers to perform motion tests using various parameters without having to build individual exoskeletons to test each design change.

John Kim/CNET

This machine learning system was developed with the help of “exoskeleton simulators” at the Biomechatronics Lab. These systems are large exoskeletons permanently constructed atop treadmills in the lab, allowing researchers to test different iterations of a design, without having to actually build prototypes.

“You can think of this as a virtual reality system for your legs,” says Steve Collins, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and head of the lab. “We program in the device that we think might help someone, put it on the simulator, and they get a feel for what it would be like to walk with that device. And then if it helps…we improve the design. If it doesn’t, then we drop that and try.” something new.”

But testing in a lab is one thing, and testing in the real world is a whole different ball game. I headed to the Stanford campus with Patrick Slade to test out the outdoor footwear. After I laced my boots, attached the leg braces and clipped the battery pack around my waist, I was ready to go.

A woman standing outside on the grass wearing robotic exoskeleton shoes

Try exoskeleton shoes around the Stanford University campus.

John Kim/CNET

In just two or three steps I could feel the motors on my legs moving and starting to push me off the ground. I felt less like Iron Man (he hadn’t exploded in space yet) and I felt like there was a robot controlling my feet.

There was no doubt that I had a spring in my step. But the problem with getting used to these exoskeletons wasn’t with the machine — it was with me. My mind made it harder than I thought it would be. Just like pulling a muscle in your leg can cause you to unconsciously change the way you walk while you adjust your gait to compensate, my legs and brain didn’t know what to make of this sudden new aid. I started walking a little like a robot. I felt like Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock when he suddenly forgot how to move like a normal person.

According to Patrick Slade, although the exoskeleton is quick to learn, humans take much longer. Patients and test subjects are usually trained in the lab, and it usually takes a few hours for their bodies and brains to adjust to the help. I was running this quickly in less than an hour.

However, I could feel the difference. The biggest change came when I discontinued the shoe. Suddenly my legs felt like a heavy weight — like I’d pulled myself out of a pool and went from being weightless to feeling the full force of gravity.

Testing these prototypes in one afternoon, I got a real look at how much this research can make a difference. Slade and his team hope that these types of assistive devices — high-tech wearable devices that adapt to users — will help elderly patients or those with walking difficulties have new levels of mobility perfectly targeted to their needs.

To watch the exoskeletons in action, check out this week’s episode of What The Future, at the top of this article.

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