Ever so slowly, but surely, the tides are changing around the future of transportation. Automated Vehicles (AVs) are now so commonly considered the inevitable future, it really isn't if: it's when and how. But with a growing urbanization of the world and the needs of short to medium-distance transportation, cars shouldn't really be the mainstay of the conversation. Uber seems to think that the shift from cars to dockless bikes and scooters for short distances is the way to go with their recent investments in Lime and purchase of Jump. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told the Financial Times that, "during rush hour, it is very inefficient for a one-ton hulk of metal to take one person 10 blocks. We're able to shape behavior in a way that's a win for the user. It's a win for the city." And that is echoed in the future plans of multiple municipalities banning cars altogether in urban centers or at least making it very difficult to drive there. So let's ideate on this future non-car-centric world and see what else may be possible beyond electric bikes and scooters.
When I questioned Senior Design Manager of the Toyota Innovation Hub in Oakland, Satoshi Okamoto about the future of transport, ironically he pounded his legs and said, "these are the most basic mobility tools we have." And it's so true. The most basic transportation building blocks are not wheels, they are legs. Then why haven't companies, either big Automotive giants or disruptive startups, considered augmenting our limbs as the next wave of transport future?
Illustration of bionics for rent next to bikes and scooters on the corner. Credit: Yael Agmon
Certainly the likes of Toyota, Honda, Hyundai have all explored assistive robotics for decades, but never as a general consumer mobility service. Most of the development in bionics has been either medical, industrial or military-related. Richmond, CA based Ekso Bionics purports to be the leading developer of exoskeleton solutions that "amplify human potential by supporting or enhancing strength, endurance and mobility." Both Ekso and its rival SuitX have done amazing work to help people who can't walk do so or to support soldiers lighten their load when walking long distances or workers to lift heavy loads more safely in warehouses. The next step may very well be making these leaps and bounds the norm even for an everyday commuter. Economics would be the first challenge that comes to mind with wearable robotics. A lower body suit runs $6000+ a pop. That price needs to come down a wee bit to compete with scooter rentals.
Snowshoe using Roam product
San Francisco-based Roam, founded by ex-Ekso Bionics Tim Swift is making minimalist robotic solutions for everyday use. The company is dedicated to making more affordable and lightweight solutions. I spoke with Tim about the company's vision, "We are about moving boundaries for people. My barrier and my grandmother's barrier are very different, but they still exist. We can make a device that moves those boundaries," he responded. What is exciting about Roam's take is not only that they are focusing on general consumers needs, but also how to design robotics differently to address them. Swift feels that the key to advancing the industry for consumer use is acting more like the consumer electronics industry than like the medical or industrial fields. That means lighter, cheaper and with more power. Designing with lightweight plastics and high-strength fabric, Roam's solution, not surprising as an Otherlab spin off, includes pneumatics. The company has focused on supports for skiers and snowboarders as a first effort. The product, which has a waitlist, should cost $2,000-2,500 and is meant for release in January 2019. Seismic, another direct-to-consumer startup is taking a little different twist with what they are calling "powered clothing." Regardless of the angle, both companies require efficiently producing inexpensive products, but also ones that are easy to adopt. These products break the stereotype that these kinds of devices are only for injured people. When top athletes are able to extend their workout longer or the "boost" is hidden in fashionable clothing people start to rethink the stigma of getting more support.
Offering hope for discreet exo suits, Danish researchers in the Biomechanics group at AAU, recently developed a new type of mechanical joint called the CXD (Compact X-scissors Device) that can move freely in all directions around a sphere, perfect for addressing hip and shoulder issues. Whereas, in the past, wearable robotics have used bulkier mechanics, this compact retractable joint advances the possibilities of more streamlined exoskeletons. This may help offset the reality that current exoskeleton systems are by no means small needing to include some form of belt-mounted battery pack.
CXD joint developed by researchers at AAU. Credit: Jakob Brodersen
It's interesting to think about a modular system that would stem from a universal pack. Perhaps the pack (either backpack or fannypack-form) could be the central mounting system for shareable parts. Instead of a bus stop, you may stop to grab a pair of snap-on robotic lower body supports so you could easily run to work. While at the CostCo, along with your gigantic shopping cart, you may want to also grab a pair of snap-on robotic arm supports for when you want help grabbing the fifty pound bag of dog food (or the pallet of LaCroix). Granted, there may need to be a robotic jogger cart that you can push home to hold all those goodies.
So if we were all to don these new awesome bionics, would you want them to be noticeable or blend in seamlessly to your humanoid figure? There are certainly popular cultural signals that point to augmentation -- like tattoos and piercings as mainstreamed. And perhaps it is heartening to think about pop-culture celebrating augmented limbs (have you seen the trailers for Alita: Battle Angel?) for those currently with prosthetics. But augmented seems to be one of these buzzwords (like bionics and robotics) that is a bit confusing. What is augmentation really? If you think about it, everything could be considered augmented. Glasses augment your vision. Clothing augments your skin. Pushing the technical boundaries a bit, Tellart experimented with the idea in the Museum of the Future with an Augmentation Spa. This speculative design concept imagined services offering everything from new knees to new eyes with the ability to look through someone else's (EyeShare).
New Knees from Augmentation Spa
So really even a bike, scooter, uni-wheel, skateboard or those kids' shoes with pop-out wheels could be considered an augmentation, albeit a rolling one. Which brings us to the point, are wheels better? If we have toyed with alternative transport for decades, but have not actually followed through to a general adoption model, then what are the barriers people still have? You still need to feel confident on wheels. It's not like using your own two feet. Perhaps nature didn't make wheels because feet are usually better on uneven terrain and in nasty weather. This means if you are running along with your augmented legs, you could actually navigate the sidewalk, the street and the hillside if you needed to. Navigating the side of buildings parkour- or Spiderman-style could be possible too, why not?
What about augmented feet? The wearable bionic product, the Bionic Boot, based on the biomechanics of an Ostrich, tried to run with this idea. But it didn't quite take off as a superhero supplement despite promise of 25 mph speed, instead it settled itself in the extreme fitness market. What if this new bionic transport, not only helped you get there super fast, but could also be reversed to train your muscles to work harder? The emphasis on improving energy economy allows you to use your limbs over a longer period of time. You could use bionic transport to help you get there faster or train your body to do the work next time. Some workers who are actually using exoskeletons today don't even use chairs any more when they want to take a break. It's possible to just squat in a sitting position like you are resting in an invisible chair. Similar to using a yoga ball as a chair, your core muscles could stay engaged helping you strengthen as you go about your business. Frankly the thought of a little extra support for my back, knees and hips sounds like quite a relief.
Credit: Yael Agmon
So how does your body interface with a bionic exoskeleton? According to research from Drs. Young and Ferris in State of the Art and Future Directions for Lower Limb Robotic Exoskeletons, one of the largest hurdles to be overcome in exoskeleton research is user interface and control. Current prototypes have adjustable mechanical settings for personal customization and smartphone interfaces for the rest. But just how you mimic or replace the complex neuromuscular system of humans is the ultimate challenge.
Potentially the ultimate challenge doesn't lie in the technology, it lies in legislation. More than likely, in augmented limb scenarios, regulators will get involved which may mean relegating these systems to follow the same protocols as the bike lane, as we have seen throughout the history of powered mobility devices. Companies may want to just go rogue like Bird and others to drop ship robotics on the corners of major cities to see what happens with this new social bionics experiment. Isn't it interesting how venture capitalists are helping the world get a little more anarchist about product regulations by championing companies that just get after it and answer questions after-the-fact?
I've definitely simplified things here, but there are significant advances and investment that have been making this idea closer to a reality than ever before. Researchers at robotics departments around the world are working on mobility solutions to understand issues of torque, control parameters and optimization as well as customization versus universal systems. Startups and disruptors are pushing different angles including the soon-to-be-updated Robot Operating System 2.0 (ROS) from Open Robotics to let developers build technology into hardware. Wearable robotics have been around since the 1960s, but as the next generation transport system, it's an open playing field. It's so important that we not get stuck building off the same basic scenarios. By examining real-life context, environment and cultural mores, more speculative futures should abound. Let's invoke our collective imagination to radically rethink the way we approach transportation and urban development. It may just mean taking AVs out of the conversation in places we would rather [speed] walk.