Sophie Morgan is an attractive 27-year-old who became paralyzed from the waist down following a T6 spinal cord injury from a car accident at 18. Thanks to a $145,000 robotic exoskeleton, she took her first steps recently in a hotel room in London.
The RoboCop-like powered suit is made of a metal and carbon-fiber framework that encases the paralyzed areas of the body, and is controlled by a joystick moved by the thumb. Some argue that the invention will be the end of the wheelchair, but for now it’s use is limited to a very few number of therapeutic settings.
Sophie is one of the first people to experience the benefit of a robotic exoskeleton. The model she took her first three steps in since her accident is named the Rex. She was given the opportunity to try out the Rex, which is made by New Zealand based Rex Bionics during the filming for the Paralympics in London, where she was a newscaster covering the event. She learned about the device from her friend, BBC Security correspondent Frank Gardner, who was paralyzed in Saudi Arabia by a bullet in 2004.
“Until you have been in a wheelchair for years you cannot understand what it’s like to stand up, physically or emotionally,” says Sophie. “When Frank first told me about Rex, I was hesitant. I’d been through a lot emotionally and had come to accept my wheelchair. I didn’t want to regress.”
“I was in a hotel room in London and my family and friends were with me,” she recalls. “It was a bizarre feeling. I’m 5ft. 10in. and the floor looked so far away. I felt safe, but it was all an emotional blur. Afterwards I couldn’t believe that I had been walking around, and wanted to do it all over again.”
Her boyfriend Tom said, “It was the first time I’ve seen her standing up.”
“It was wonderful to be eye to eye with each other. We just hugged and hugged,” added Sophie.
Unlike the ReWalk suit, the Rex is completely self-supporting. It weighs about the same as an 11-year-old child, and while it is still bulky now, experts expect the Rex to become small enough and light enough to be worn under a pair of jeans in future models.
Sophie said the most exciting part of using the Rex was walking on the beach in Brighton. People didn’t stare, but likely because it was such an odd sight. Despite its futuristic appearance, the Rex only requires the strength of the thumb to control 29-micro-controllers within the machine, allowing to user to move in all directions, sit down and go down stairs.
The next model to be launched will be the Rehab Rex, which allows ten users a day to have rehabilitation at special spinal clinics. Exploration into a brain interface is being explored by the University of Houston so that those without the ability to control thumb movement can benefit.
“The ultimate goal is to connect the brain directly to the electrodes,” says Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics.