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The Ultimate Productivity Tool: A Robotic Third Arm

This intriguing new prosthetic technology is actually controlled with your feet.

The Ultimate Productivity Tool: A Robotic Third Arm

We’ve all had those moments where we’ve wished for another set of hands. Now, researchers are making that dream come true. Scientists from the Inami Hiyama Laboratory, in Tokyo, are developing a second pair of arms that you wear like a backpack and control with your feet. They’re called MetaLimbs.

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The robo appendages themselves, spotted on Prosthetic Knowledge, feature articulated elbows, wrists, and fingers. They’re capable of very sensitive motions, including holding a sheet of paper while you draw on it, grasping a cup and lifting it to your mouth, and even wielding a hot soldering iron while your real hands finesse whatever is being soldered.

But how do you actually control the new hands and arms? That work is done through your old feet and legs, which are fit with motion tracking markers followed by a camera, as well as bending sensors. So to bend your robo arm, you bend your fleshy leg. To squeeze a ball, you sickle your foot. The motions are relatively 1:1, meaning there’s a minimal mental hurdle to learning the new system. And in fact, your feet can even feel what your robo hands touch, thanks to a combination of sensors and force feedback.

“It’s a novel experience,” states the project video. “Your body will adapt to a new type of human shape. And the body schema will metamorphize into multiple arms.”

It sounds silly, though, right? Hands you control with your feet. What’s the point if you’re sacrificing two old limbs to get two new ones?

It’s easy to imagine the potential for arm amputees, and for other possibilities around accessibility. But MetaLimbs would also be useful during times when any able bodied person finds themselves seated–and their legs are temporarily not all that useful.

It’s a compelling possibility, once you realize that these zany foot controls are more common than you might think. After all, we use them in cars, pianos, and sewing machines. Even Dean Kamen’s remarkable Luke Arm, developed for veteran amputees? While it’s been said to use a neural brain to prosthetic interface, in fact, many early videos you may have seen actually show it working with good old foot controls.

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So yes, MetaLimbs is still a strange idea that won’t appear in a Tim Cook keynote anytime soon. However, as companies like Facebook tease a future when our bodies learn to send status updates with our brains and feel information through our skin, maybe it’s not so crazy of a thought that our bodies will adapt to new, evolving human shapes. So even as the world goes digital, our physical selves will continue to be what they were always built to be: an extension of our will.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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