Paraplegic to kick off mega bash

The first kick at the World Cup opening ceremony will be made by a paraplegic wearing an Iron Man-like robotic bodysuit controlled by signals from the brain.

Brazilian doctor Miguel Nicolelis led a team of 156 scientists from around the world to create the futuristic exoskeleton, which was designed to enable paralysis victims to walk.

At the World Cup opening ceremony on Thursday in Sao Paulo, a paraplegic whose identity has been kept secret will leave behind his or her wheelchair to take to the pitch in the  suit and give the tournament’s first kick.

Electronic circuits in the device’s “feet” will send a return signal to the user via an artificial skin worn on the arm, conveying the sensation of movement and contact.

“It’s the first time an exoskeleton has been controlled by brain activity and offered feedback to the patients,” Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University, told AFP.

“Doing a demonstration in a stadium is something very much outside our routine in robotics.”

His voice contains a mix of exhaustion and excitement, the result of 30 years’ work, more than 200 scientific papers and countless clinical tests that are nearing a spectacular summit.

Nicolelis started down this path in 1984 when he wrote his doctoral thesis on neural connections in muscular control. He said the idea for the suit came to him in 2002, when scientists were just beginning to explore robotic exoskeletons.

Nicolelis said he and a team of some 40 people have barely left the lab since March, when they arrived in Sao Paulo. But it’s been rewarding, too, he said, recalling the moment on April 24 when a paralyzed user first took steps in the exoskeleton.

They named the device the BRA-Santos Dumont, a combination of the three-letter sporting code for Brazil and Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator, inventor and bon vivant.

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