I have not only seen the future, I have worn it.
Granted, the motion assistance devices that Honda showed off in New York Wednesday were prototypes that may not be available commercially for years. And anyone hoping for Terminator-like abilities was likely a bit underwhelmed. But the Stride Management Assist and the Bodyweight Support Assist devices shown for the first time outside of Japan this week offer a kinesthetic experience that tantalizingly suggests how physical human-machine interaction could play out.
In an event room in the new-age ambience of the W Times Square hotel in midtown Manhattan, a group of top engineers from Honda's R&D Co. helped journalists try on the devices. The team met with the media before heading out to the 2009 Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) World Congress at Detroit's Cobo Center starting Monday.
Jun Ashihara, a chief engineer at the R&D group, helped me strap the Stride Management Assist, a 5.6 pound (2.5 kilogram) device, around my waist and over my thighs. The Stride is designed to help people with weak muscles, like the elderly, walk.
The device's CPU is fixed to the back of a waist strap and connected to two motors that rest on the legs beneath the hips. The motors control two braces that are strapped on to the legs above the knees. Hip angle sensors on the device transmit motion data to the CPU, which controls the two CD-size motors.
With the device strapped on, I started walking in circles. At first I had the sensation of not being able to figure out whether it was helping or hindering my movement. For a healthy person, I thought, this could be beside the point. But as I walked out the door of the room and headed down the hall, picking up a bit of speed, I had a slight sensation of involuntarily straightening my torso, stepping a little higher and swinging my legs a bit more than usual.
This could actually help you practice walking better, I mused as I went into power-walking mode and segued into half-trot before slowing down, feeling a little silly, in front of a chic receptionist at the end of the hall.
I walked back to Ashihara, who explained that the device learns the user's walking style as the CPU processes information from the sensors, directing the motors to apply what Honda calls "cooperative control." The device helps the user walk better by subtly lengthening the users' stride and regulating the pace of walking.
Next I tried the the14-pound (6.4 kg) Bodyweight Support device. The device consists of a seat, sort of an elongated bike saddle, attached to foldable leg braces and sneaker-type shoes. With the seat and braces pushed down low in front of me, I sat on a chair and slipped into the shoes and zipped them shut. I stood over the device, lifting the seat up into position underneath me. I straightened to full height, the seat pushing up with me. I went into a crouch, and felt the artificial legs gently resist, slightly bracing the seat against the momentum of my body.
The Bodyweight device gives 6 pounds of resistance relief to a standing user, boosting that to 18 pounds as the user bends. I have weak knees -- driving for more than two hours can leave my right knee sore for a day -- so I gingerly bent down and straightened up a few times. The subtle resistance gave me more confidence, and I tried going into a semi-crouch quickly, several times in quick succession, thinking that the device could come in handy and give some support next time I had to haul boxes around or do similar household chores.
Feeling more confident, I went over to a small podium set up in the demo room, walked a few steps up to the podium and then down, the Bodyweight seat giving a bit of support. I almost forgot the seat was being held up by the braces.
"We also see maybe a bigger commercial application for this technology," said David IIda, manager of corporate affairs and communications for American Honda Motor Co. "We feel it could be useful to people who do a lot of repetitive tasks, especially those who use the lower body," he said, noting that Honda has already started using it on a trial basis in one of its factories.
Engineers said they see applications not only in factories but also for people like surgeons who need to stand for hours when involved in lengthy operations.
Officials decline to say when these devices will come out of trial phase. But the world's changing demographic may provide a big target market.
"We believe an aging society will need these devices," said Kiyoshi Oikawa, chief engineer at Honda's R&D Company, and a creator of the Asimo robot, which Honda has worked on for decades. Asimo debuted in the U.S. in 2002, when it rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. The Asimo can now cooperate with other Asimo robots to accomplish tasks more efficiently.
Honda has applied for 130 patents for the new motion devices, and has used its own technology to build them, incorporating field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) -- configurable semiconductors -- into the machines' motors. The batteries last for two hours and take an hour to charge.
Honda envisions a future where its technology can help rehabilitate people and allow certain types of workers to accomplish tasks more easily. I asked if someday similar devices could be programmed to repeat the motion of a champion golfer or all-star batter, for training purposes. The heads of the engineers nodded vigorously. Meanwhile, I need to carry a bunch of boxes up out of the basement this weekend ...