Rex, the Robotic Exoskeleton

We recently heard through the news that "Kiwis launch bionic legs". Hmmm. Okay. According to the company’s website, Rex Bionics, "Rex, the Robotic Exoskeleton, is a pair of robotic legs that enables you to stand up, walk, move sideways, turn around, go up and down steps as well as walk on flat hard surfaces including ramps and slopes". I’ve been asked by at least ten different people what I think, and I must admit to having mixed feelings about this.

A Kiwi Invention

I’m really excited that a New Zealand company came up with yet another cool invention. Kiwis seem to have a gift for great inventions. Over the decades, Kiwis have come up with inventions such as the disposable syringe (HUGE improvement), bungy jumping (some might argue about the "greatness" of that invention), the modern jetboat, splitting the atom, or the Zorb, to name just a few. Kiwis are known for their ingenuity and "#8 wire" mentality. So these robotic legs are the latest in a long line of proud New Zealand creations.

Knee-Jerk Reaction

As it stands (bad puns intended), I’m not able to get too excited about the device itself. The legs seem to be bulky, awkward, and slow. Not to mention expensive. The price-tag is gonna be about US$150,000. That’s a LOT of money.

A wheelchair user in the US told me:

It’s way too slow, and if many (if not most) wheelchair users can’t even afford high-end wheelchairs, I don’t see how they are going to afford a robot.

Some Benefits

The site lists some benefits that potential users have said they would get from the exoskeleton:

  • Enjoying the health benefits of being upright and moving around
  • Standing up to cook dinner at home, or in a friend’s house
  • Looking out the window at the garden while cooking dinner
  • Standing and working at a workbench safely, rather than getting a face full of debris
  • Socialising with friends by the barbeque
  • Playing a few games of pool or foosball with friends
  • Reaching things on the high shelves at home, in the supermarket, or at work
  • Standing up in family photos like graduations and wedding shots  

All right, so these benefits were stated by wheelchair users. But, seems to me that some of these are not really that critical, or rather, while important, are looked at the "wrong" way.

Standing up to cook dinner

Why do you need to stand to cook? Really. I’m asking, because, well… I don’t see it. Thousands of wheelchair users cook in all kinds of kitchens, some fully modified (costly) others not modified much at all. I don’t think this is worth $150,000.

Socialising with friends by the barbeque

What’s stopping anyone from socialising because they are in a chair? Can’t friends sit down if the wheelchair user feels awkward they aren’t standing? Is standing up with "the guys" at the barbeque really worth $150,000???

Playing a few games of pool

What’s wrong with playing pool from a wheelchair? It’s not like it’s impossible, far from it. Heck, in the US there’s even a National Wheelchair Poolplayer Association.

Reaching things on high shelves at the supermarket

The legs are slow. Very slow. I don’t believe that it would be realistic to use the legs for a full shopping outlet. At the speed of walking provided by the device, it would be a couple hours just to go up and down all the aisles at the store. The legs are too bulky to be worn while sitting in a wheelchair. So it’s really an either/or situation. At the moment, these devices just aren’t ready to be used that way.

Working at a workbench

Wouldn’t it be cheaper to lower the bench than to purchase these legs? And if you have to go from point A to point B in the workshop, you better not be in a hurry…

Standing up in family photos

That’s really an expensive way to get up with the family! Novel idea: why not get everyone to SIT instead?

Going to non-accessible restaurants or bars

Not listed on the site is the idea of being able to climb steps to go to a restaurant or bar that is not accessible. Nice idea, but again, for me, the issue of speed is critical.

Rabid Disability Activist

I cannot deny that the desire to "stand up" for many people is very strong. That said, I’m not convinced that a lot of the "need" for standing up is a real need. I do think society places the onus on people with disabilities to conform to the norms – for instance, stand up in graduation photos. I challenge that norm – I say let’s ALL sit down for the photo. I would hate Rex to be one more device in a long line of such implements that tries to help wheelchair users fit the norms in an ersatz stand or walk, just because they think it would be better. I’ve been accused of being a rabid disability rights activist in the past. I could see how people would think my views too extreme. I don’t apologise for these views.

But please don’t misunderstand – I am NOT saying this device is bad, nor that its inventors have nefarious purposes. It is perhaps just a case of "not quite ready for prime time".

It’s Not All Bad

I’ve been quite negative about it so far, but it’s not all bad. Being able to stand up, and bear weight on the leg bones is good for the body – circulation, bone strength (reducing advance of osteoporosis). It’s also good for the emotions, for the spirit. At the moment the main use I can see for these device is in a rehab setting, which could be quite good.

This Reminds Me

This device reminds me of the IBOT wheelchair. This was a wheelchair that could lift up from being four-wheeled to balance on two wheels and raise the user to "eye level". The chair could also handle stairs, steep curbs, and could travel on sand, gravel, and even through some water. It cost about US$26,000 to purchase, but has not been available for sale for years now. The chair was not a success: It was too expensive, and did not provide all that high a benefit to people (hmmm, sounds familiar?).

From the IBOT, came the Segway – a two-wheeled scooter used the world over. The inventors of the IBOT used the same technology. I wonder what other applications Rex could have in the world outside disability needs?

The Future

There are 3 things I think need to happen in the future for Rex to have a future :

  • Reduce the size of the exoskeleton – so it could be worn while sitting in your regular wheelchair
  • Significantly reduce the price of the exoskeleton – say down to $15,000
  • Increase the speed of the exoskeleton – so walking is at the same pace as "the average able bodied individual"

Unless these things happen, the device will be reserved to the very few rich individuals who can afford it. Even if it is purchasable by someone, the current awkwardness makes Rex almost unusable in "real life" situations.

I do hope that the venture succeeds and the product reaches a large number of people who can benefit from it.