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.
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.
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]