When thinking of an artificial limb, perhaps all you visualise is a basic flesh-coloured plastic or metal design. Something fairly nondescript and hidden away by the wearer. But prosthetic technology is continually advancing and moving away from the inanimate. A start-up company in Bristol has demonstrated just how awesome and exciting prosthetics can be.
Open Bionics aspire in turning disabilities into superpowers! Their ethos is about turning science fiction into reality. Children with limb differences can play at being superheroes or bionic marvels. “We wanted to make prosthetics a bit more inspirational rather than medical, skin-coloured, and frankly, not very attractive to look at”, declared the co-founder of the company, Joel Gibbard. The business is now also working with Disney to create hero ranges for franchises such as Star Wars and Marvel.
Many people may be hesitant because of the costs involved. It’s not surprising, really; According to the World Health Organization, 90% of those who need prosthetics do not have access to them, as they are neither affordable nor available. Even low-cost alternatives could be conceived as expensive, especially those in low and middle-income countries. The products Open Bionics are pioneering can hopefully quash financial reservations people may have with choosing prosthetics. Joel Gibbard stated, “our mission is to create and democratise technology that enhances the human body”.
Engineers in the company have created the Hero Arm as their first innovative offering. Even the way it’s produced has some heroic element to it. It’s cheaper than regular manufacturing and more attainable for the general public, as it can be done in your own home. This more modest approach is known as 3D printing or Additive Manufacturing. The process involves a design being constructed on a computer. Layer by layer, some material is then added to it and the final result is printed out. The Hero Arm is the first 3d printed device to be medically certified.
Enhancing the Human
It’s described to have four motors inside for the purpose of multi-grip. Fine motor coordination is taken into account as each individual finger can be moved, as well as the thumb. So intricate tasks, such as picking up very small objects, shouldn’t pose an issue. One wearer even used his prosthetic to play the piano. It all works through signals. Sensors placed within the socket detect these signals from the user’s muscles. But the experience for the wearer is still governed by their own nervous system. Their movements determine its control; not some external switch or button.
The device is robotic-like and markedly different from the rest of the body. Despite this, the creators behind the Hero Arm fully embrace its difference and believe this is how prosthetics should be, instead of being made to simply blend in. Some old models, although flesh-coloured, appear stiffly lodged in place and therefore not altogether natural. A spokesperson for the company described his own experience of wearing old, false limbs as a stale one. “It didn’t do anything for me, it just made me stick out. I think I just got them because I thought it was the normal thing to do”.
With regular prosthetics, there’s the issue of children outgrowing them as they continually develop. It would only cost more money for parents, to keep buying replacements. The Hero Arm does have some adjustability at least. Within the socket area there’s plenty of space for ease of use and to accommodate development.
So you could say some older prosthetic models serve no other purpose than replacing what is lost. But these bionic creations inspire questions and conversations. You can even personalise them by choosing your own colours. They’re sleek, move in robotic fashion and have flashing lights-perfect for Star Wars fanatics. They bring fantasy to reality for many people.
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