by January 3, 2012 0 comments



I n 1980, Empire strikes back, the second movie in the Star wars triology was released. Little did they realize that Luke Skywalker, would not only win the box office with his heroics against the villain Darth Vader, but also set scientific community abuzz with a new technology Bionics —Arm implant. Since then, bionics has indeed transcended the realm of science fiction and entered real life. However, these are still in fringes.

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Current Bionics

As we write this article, in early 2012, Google gives around 2.3 million hits, with ‘bionics’ and Bing around 1.2 million. Compared to around 5.6 billion pages in Google and 1.3 billion in Bing for the word “phones”. As one can clearly make out, bionics is still at fringes of our day to day life.

One of the first things, scientists got their hand around was in human re-habilitation. Helping humans gain control of lost body part, has been the main driver of this field, and contrary to popular belief, less of the glamor of bionics.

The current field of bionics, are in field trial to drawing board stages. Still expensive, sometimes clunky and out of reach for most general masses. However, it is indeed no more a matter of fiction — excellent strides have been made to demonstrate amazing advancements in this field. Some of the areas, have matured to providing a commercial generally available product in the market — but, in others we are many a years behind appearance of any mature product line.

Moving your Limbs

1981 — 2004: A, now dead company, released three versions of Utah arm

1999: Jewish Hospital, University of Louisville helped Matthew Scott, get the first ‘bionic’ arm.

2004: Saebo claims to have sold more than 1500 bionic arms in the market

2005-2008: iLimb came out with an elaborate hand, complete with finger control. They would later come out with a very prosthetic skin, which is more life like than any before.

2006: Vienna’s weekly European Journal published a case of successful implementation of the world’s first ‘mind-controlled’ arm, where the patient, like normal people, could control the bionic arm normally with mind.

2008: Touch bionics comes out with Fluidhand — a more natural, well controlled and light-weight with miniature hydraulics.

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2009: Touch sensation added into the the hands, courtesy Smarthand (has more than 40 sensors). Prodigits, is announced as generally available Arm for anyone to buy and implement.

2011: Thinking makes movement possible — more than 10 technologies exist today, that allow you to ‘think-control’ your prosthetic limbs.

2012 — 2022: Next Ten years. At this point, of time, we have several bright sparks of technologies doing independent brilliant research and success. Some in the field of sensory, some in motion, some in simpler natural control. The technology is now here, the next ten years will be to integrate them and make it available on demand to people. Soon standard will arrive and you would see affordability zooming. Unlike the human limbs, which is isolated from network, the bionic limbs can be inter-networked. Central maintenance computer will automatically receive status updates from the limbs about a possible failure, malfunction of the device and thus pre-emptive support.

Beyond next ten: Once the basics are fixed, we would see the evolution on the comfort, luxury, durability, low maintenance zone. People will need AND demand — all of the above.

Seeing more with your Eyes

2003: Keck school of medicine (Uni of South California) successfully implanted with permanent retinal prosthesis. One of the first records of such successful implants.

2008: The Guardian reported surgeons in Moorsefield Eye Hospital, London fitted two men with bionic eyes to partially restore their vision. This included video camera and transmitter mounted on glasses. This is sent to the receiver in the wearer’s pocket, which is then sent wirelessly to an implanted artificial retina, which transmits to the optic nerve, for the brain to perceive images.




2009: First complete production documentation published on IEEE journal. Detailing the specific construction plans and issues to be resolved.

2011 November: University of Washington declared that it has successfully implanted contact lenses type eyes in animals and now seeking human trials. (http://bit.ly/rspVdw)

  • Problems still to solve: Power source, daily wear issues,
  • The next ten years: Visual bionics is still in infancy stage and is likely to take another ten years or so, to achieve product maturity.
  • However, unlike the Limb bionics, that has many complexity, eyes seem to be headed for a much rapid level of completeness in much shorter period of time.
  • It is quite possible to see a complete integrated comprehensive bionic eye, before this decade is over.
  • Getting emails received directly into your eye, or facebook update with a blink of an eye are today’s science fictions — tomorrows reality.

Beyond ten years: Apart from fashion statement of a perfect blue eyes, the potential in eyesight bionics is indeed mind boggling.

  • A positive side-effect of the bionic eye is ‘photo-graphic memory’. Now that you have computer seen visual data, transmitted into your optical nerves directly, you can, with the blin of an eye lash, instruct your ‘eye’ to replay, what it saw five days ago or 4 years ago.
  • In fact, you can — through networked eye (now that you have computer and network ability in your eyes) meet and greet people sitting across hundreds of kilometers away. Tele-presence will have a new meaning.
  • Entertainment will be interactive in more ways than earlier possible.
  • At this point of time, the bionic eye will actually super-cede the natural eye in terms of spectrum of light, sound integration, ability to see details, specialised long distance and short distance views.

Getting into your brains

One of the most difficult things and often regarded as the final-frontier of human body is the brain.

1924: Berger identifies brain waves, birth of BCI — Brain controlled interface

2000: BCI used on animals to control external things.

2002: Jens Naumann, one of the 16 paying patients receives invasive BCI (where the BCI is implanted into the brain)

2008: Wireless brain implants in monkeys arrive. Monkey able to move a robot arm, purely by ‘thinking’ about it.

  • lNeuroSky, Inc., demonstrating a brainwave-controlled video game At the Tokyo Game Show 2008 in Makuhari, Japan. This had a controller that the player could

2009: A mind-controlled wheel chair demonstrated by Toyota. The rider of the wheel chair wears a cap, that sends signals via the brain-scan electroencephalograph (medically known as BSE). This is received by the computer and controls the wheelchair.

  • Intel announced an ambitious project — brain implants to happen by 2020, that would allow people to control computer (and thus anything controlled with it) by mere brain waves.
  • Mattel ties up with Neurosky and releases Mindflex, a game, where the mind controls the ball through an obstacle path.

2010: Xwave mindset-headset arrives on screen available for around $100. It is available as a headset. Using an iapp application one can levitate a ball on the screen, by just thinking about it, or select the mood of the music player, by simply getting into the mood. This commercial product is witnessing success and is a precursor of things to follow (http://www.plxwave.com/)




2011: Making sense of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Brain functioning has eluded transparency for ages. Scientists have realised that they need to collaborate their efforts to break this jig-saw puzzle. With this expectation in mind, scientific community has come together to co-relate the studies published by myriad of sources. Initiated in Colorado, an application called neuro-smith is doing just that.

  • The next ten years — standby for some very exciting development in this field. Not only will the simpler non-invasive BCI will become extremely prevalent, but will open up potential for a variety of things. In terms of impact, this development would possibly make the largest impact in terms of rehabilitating currently physically challenged. The evolution of BCI will lead to much rapid development of other components of bionics.
  • Beyond the ten years will see BCI becoming available as commercial off-the shelf product, that would come with a number of interfaces — mobile phones — think to call home, think to recover the number of person, think to open an email or website — all of this at the speed of thought.

Computers: Under your skin, and above

2007 — Researchers have created an artificial skin, using electronics made from conductive carbon-based polymers, plastics etc. This ‘artificial-skin’ is about 1000 times more sensitive than natural skin.

2008 – Cincinnati Shriners Hospital for Children claims the new skin is more resistant to bacteria and thus significant protection against infections.

2009 — Implantable nanowire (http://bit.ly/c0frsX)

  • Georgia Institute of technology develops sensors, that can be implanted under your skin. This implant, transmits the vital stats to a doctor, for remote and managed recovery and re-habilitation.

2010 — Skinput — Using the skin to input computer data. (http://bit.ly/cFtMTy). Simply tap your skin at specific places and you can today, browse the net, check email, read status updates.

2011 — August — Dailan universiy of China (http://bit.ly/nPdAoo), published in the journal science claims of development of ultra-thin, nanascale electronics that, when embedded with tattoos on your skin, can monitor your heart rate, pulse, temperature, sugar — and all the while sitting pretty as a tattoo on your fore-arm.

  • Using the huge human body as antenna for communication has been on for several years now. But it is only late October, 2011, that wearing an antenna that provides connectivity for your communication device is commercially available.
  • Birth of EES (Epidermal electronic system) is a computer circuit implanted/imprinted on your skin designed to stretch, flex and to take inputs from actions of your body. Rogers research group, actually demonstrated a game, that could be played, by sensing muscles in the throat. (http://www.tecca.com/news/2011/ 08/12/breakthrough-electronic-circuits-that-are-integrated-with-your-skin/)
  • The next ten years are poised to explore the ways in which the skin can still be used. Today’s skins still do not breathe, sweat, or give the same amount of sensory feeling as the normal skin does. It would perhaps take the longest period of time for the skin to evolve to a completeness. However, we would see special purpose designed skins emulating specific functions of skin. Additionally, the computer integration on the ‘huge’ (relatively) human body real-estate will bring in new avenues. Soon you would be able to wear your computer, tablets, ipads on your skin.
  • Beyond ten years — Once fully developed, the skin interface would possibly be used to remedy medical situations and less as use for advanced electronic substitutes. Additionally, we would find ways of using the skin to support other functions. e.g. WBAN (Wide Body Area Networks -using the human body to pass communication) will be extensively in use to augment the neural network — basically, one would be able to send the neural messages from one point of the body to another, using human body surface charges — instead of the current neural electrical strength (http://www.jneuroengrehab.com/content/2/1/6)

The ability for the electronics to go beyond the shapes we have grown into newer and more disruptive ways of living has opened up an entirely new world of IT management. In today’s world, the numbers of such devices are extremely limited as compared to the main-stream computer products. However, all the issues that we have been dealing with in conventional IT world, would need to be solved in this new world. Having a micro-chip monitor my heart and then hacked by a hacker, brings about a completely new and scary image that we have yet to deal with. Or for that matter, the current fight for medical wireless spectrum, (http://bit.ly/s9my1u/) are signs that the IT world is set to another change with higher intricacies, much higher demands of reliability and management. Standby, the next twenty five years are going to be ‘the age of bionics’

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