Few geeks haven't dreamt of one day taking on cyborg enhancements—me included. And today I did, thanks to two of Honda's wearable Asimo-inspired Walk Assist devices. This is how it felt.
I strapped on Honda's fresh-from-the-labs Stride Management Assist and Bodyweight Support Assist rigs, and both devices made me feel totally unstoppable, albeit in a goofy sort of way. The whole time I felt the need to go do something great, like go on a cross-country jog or blast into outer space to join a robot colony.
I'm definitely not the target demographic for either device, which Honda's Fundamental Research Institute hopes will help mobilize and rehabilitate Japan's rapidly aging population or lessen the leg fatigue of factory workers who stand and crouch for hours on end. But of course, this didn't stop me from jumping at the opportunity to strap them on and stomp around; this is the first time Honda's prototypes have been presented on U.S. soil.
Stemming directly from Asimo research, Honda's learned so much about how bipeds walk that they can now produce devices that react to human motion in real time to support the motion of walking, using just a few simple sensors each. The magic is in the processing software which was refined with Asimo.
The first one I strapped on, the Bodyweight Support Assist (the one with the saddle) reduces the load on the user's legs to help with physically demanding activities. This one was definitely a bit more cumbersome to wear, but aside from riding up your crotch a bit (it doesn't exert upward pressure, much to Mahoney's relief), the experience is pretty cool. The system operates using just two tread sensors in the soles of the sweet built-in Velcro sneakers and two lift sensors in the legs which register the upward motion of your stride, as well as the orientation. There is zero delay, and you never feel like the device is controlling your movement. It reacted instantly to my motions and enhanced everything I did, like an exoskeleton.
Mundane activities like walking up the stairs and crouching down suddenly became fun and much easier—the saddle provides anywhere from 6.5 to 18 pounds of support when you lean back in it, which isn't enough to sit down on, obviously, but it's certainly noticeable and makes crouching easier. Personally, I had a little issue navigating the stairs and nearly fell backwards, as you can see in the video. Apparently my feet were too small for the sneaker sensors to pick up properly, making the whole device jerk my legs around more than was expected on the stairs. But even Asimo takes a tumble now and then, so wearing his legs, it was only natural that I had a stumble at some point. But when the shoes fit, the experience is absolutely natural.
Second was The Stride Management Assist, which straps on like a belaying harness and weighs practically nothing. It regulates the person's stride and walking pace, making walking much easier for the elderly or disabled while still building up their own muscles. The device was by no means discreet looking, but frolicking around in it felt very natural—just better, as my movements were enhanced almost immediately. The robo hip-huggers definitely perked up my posture and made me move around more confidently, giving gentle support to my legs during all parts of my stride. Walking up and down stairs, you can feel the complex processing involved, with more support given on the way up than on the way down.
Both devices have a sleek look, which Honda hopes to refine even further as they reduce the weight. Battery life for each is around two hours on a single charge, which will also get better as batteries get lighter. Even though Honda's tested both devices in real-world scenarious—the Stride Management Assist in a hospital, and the Bodyweight Support Assist in one of their factories in Saitama, there is no timeline for actual retail availability, but Honda does intend to come up with a finished product for sale eventually.
Which means most people will have to go on dreaming of the cyborg life, but hopefully not for much longer.