GIF: Yamen Saraiji (YouTube)

There are lots of companies who make wearable tails for humans, but they’re usually for cosplay or other entertainment pursuits. Researchers at Keio University in Japan have created a wearable animated tail that promises to genuinely augment the wearer’s capabilities—not just appearance—by improving their balance and agility.

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The easiest way to understand what inspired this creation is to watch a video of monkeys effortlessly leaping from tree to tree. Their tails not only serve as an additional limb for grasping branches but also help them reposition their bodies mid-flight for a safe landing by shifting the monkey’s center of balance as it moves. The Arque tail, as it’s been named, does essentially the same thing for humans, although leaping from the highest branches of a tree isn’t recommended just yet.

The tail could give humans the same level of agility as even a cat, but its design was actually copied from the dextrous but durable appendage you’d find on the end of a seahorse. It’s assembled from a series of interconnected plastic vertebrae that can be customized for every wearer by simply adding more segments, or counter-balancing weights, depending on the size of the person wearing it. Inside the tail are a set of four artificial muscles powered by compressed air that contract and expand in different combinations to move and curl the tail in any direction. The current design is dependent on an external air compressor to generate enough pressure for the tail to actually move, but as research on artificial muscles continue to advance, eventually all that could be needed to power the appendage is a strong battery.

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The most immediate applications for the Arque tail include assisting workers tasked with lifting or carrying heavy objects. Like an exoskeleton suit that enhances the capabilities of the wearer’s muscles, the tail works like a counterbalance so that less force is required to lift something off the ground. But unlike an exoskeleton, the tail is far less complicated and easier to take on and off. The researchers who created the Arque also believe it could be an effective way to add full-body haptic feedback to persons exploring virtual worlds, altering their balance and momentum to mimic what their body is experiencing in the virtual world.