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Welcome to the TED Revival: Blind People Drive, Paralyzed People Walk

Yesterday morning at TED resembled an old-time faith-healing session—except instead of the Bible, the force was technology.

TED on stage with walker

Yesterday morning at TED resembled an old-time faith-healing session—except instead of the Bible, the force was technology.

First Dennis Hong presented the results of his robotics lab RoMeLa's collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind. They equipped a car with an accelerometer, GPS, two cameras, and laser rangefinders, and then created a set of novel nonvisual interfaces—vibrating gloves and seat mats, and a brand-new screen called the AirPix that looks like a tiny air hockey table. It uses puffs of air like pixels to create an "image" of obstacles in the road ahead.

TED blind driver

Mark Riccobono, blind since age 5, drove the specially outfitted Ford Escape around the track at Daytona one month ago, successfully dodging obstacles along the way. There are more than a few safety issues to be worked out before the legally blind can take the wheel but the interfaces their team developed have other possible applications as well.

Next, Eythor Bender took the stage. Dressed all in black and speaking in a German accent about exoskeletons, he recalled nothing more than a lost scene from Avatar. The sinister effect only increased when a burly soldier took the stage, wearing a set of mechanical extra legs that helped him easily shoulder a 200-lb pack. His company Berkeley Bionics has licensed the technology, HULC, to Lockheed Martin.

TED eLegs

Finally, the big reveal. Amanda Boxtel, paralyzed from the pelvis down in a skiing accident 19 years ago, walked on to the stage wearing the eLegs with a gait only slightly halting. The legs are artificially intelligent and battery-powered, with a small battery pack worn on the back. She said that adaptive technologies had enabled her to ski, cycle, and climb, but "Nothing has been invented that has enabled me to walk—until now."

[Images: TED Conference on Flickr]

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  • Anya Kamenetz

    It's truly exciting that these technologies can offer people new opportunities to participate in activities of daily life, although I think Curtis has a really good point that none of these gadgets or activities are essential to our humanity.

    Although the achievements of these scientists are very real, the context in which they were presented was highly theatrical, and it's that atmosphere I was trying to convey. I didn't mean to offend anyone.

  • Robert Marston

    Such a joyous topic of innovation, and success, and hope. I applaud the TED challenges and the presenters. And I applaud FC for being there to cover the story. But I'm surprised and disappointed at the editorial mockery of the subject. You've managed to offend huge numbers of people in a few brief paragraphs: was that intentional? What a shame.

  • CurtisMSP

    I'm always puzzled by people's pre-occupation with being able to walk, see and drive. As if those activities were somehow central to what it means to be human. To be healthy, people need to learn that they can be whole without any of those activities. There are millions of people in the world who will never walk, see or drive in their lifetime. Building gadgets which perpetuate the myth that these people are somehow lesser humans doesn't do them any favors.

    People with disabilities don't need gadgets to help them walk or see. People with disabilities need fair and equal access to information, education and employment. With those things, anyone can realize their full human potential, even if they can't walk, see or drive.

  • jeff ehmann

    Curtis, I am educated, employed and work for a media company, so I consider myself having equal access to information. I am also in a wheelchair.

    I don't consider it a pre-occupation to be able to walk again, I consider it my goal.