The world’s first Cybathlon celebrates assistive technology.

Taking place on October 8th in Switzerland, the biannual Cybathlon championship will see disabled athletes compete in a series of challenges using advanced prosthetics, exoskeletons, and other new assistive technologies.

Unlike the Paralympics, which prohibits the use of powered technology, the Cybathlon encourages powered devices and the use of the newest, most advanced prototypes. First and foremost, the competition is an opportunity to promote and encourage improvements in the field.

Organized by Professor Robert Reiner from technology institution ETH Zurich, the event will see competitors or “pilots” tackle everyday tasks from climbing a flight of stairs to cutting a slice of bread. The six challenges include an exoskeleton race, an arm prosthesis race, a leg prosthesis race and a wheelchair race, focusing on physical enhancement.

ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

There will also be a brain-computer interface (BCI) race and a functional electrical stimulation (FES) bicycle race. The BCI race uses technology that detects brain signals, allowing fully paralyzed pilots to compete in a virtual game using their minds. In the FES race, electrodes are placed on pilots’ skin and an electrical current causes paralyzed muscles to contract, triggering movement that causes the pilot to pedal. At the end of the event, medals will be awarded to both the pilots and the companies that create the technology.

With the development of exoskeletons, wheelchairs that can climb stairs, and mind-controlled prosthetics, the field of assistive technology is seeing exponential growth. One Brazilian medical team even found that the use of an exoskeleton and VR technology resulted in partial restoration of sensation in paraplegics.

Our attitudes towards human enhancement are also evolving alongside these technologies. In the Innovation Group’s Control Shift research, we found that 74% of consumers like the idea that humans will use technology in the future to further boost their physical and mental capabilities.

ETH Cybathlon rehearsal at the Swiss Arena in Kloten, Switzerland, July 14th 2015. (ETH/Alessandro Della Bella)
ETH Cybathlon rehearsal at the Swiss Arena in Kloten, Switzerland, July 14th 2015. (ETH/Alessandro Della Bella)

Importantly, approximately 1 in 5 people in the US and UK have a disability, showing that there is a real need for brands to create products and services that can improve the lives of such a large group. There is also a need for advertisers to represent disabled people and promote diversity. Mars’ latest campaign and Channel 4’s We’re The Superhumans ad for the Rio Paralympics 2016 have both received praise for their portrayal of disability.

Brands can take the lead in breaking down barriers around disability and portraying disabled people in ways that avoid stereotyping and promote inclusivity.

Main image: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella