More uncertainty and variability in the new CYBATHLON competition
The new Races and Rules for the CYBATHLON period up until 2024 will be published in early April. Why does CYBATHLON organise a competition for people with disabilities and how will this competition be further developed in line with the changing needs of people with disabilities? CYBATHLON Head of Competition Lukas Jäger has answers.
CYBATHLON: CYBATHLON views itself as a platform for connecting society, research and development, and people with disabilities. Its objective is that assistive technologies are developed that promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in everyday life. Why is a competition the main component of CYBATHLON?
Lukas Jäger: The idea of a competition was there from the very beginning of CYBATHLON – back when Robert Riener initiated the platform nearly ten years ago. The competition creates a competitive situation that motivates the participants to continuously improve their performance – the developers want to make their devices more suitable and useful for everyday use, while the pilots seek to get more and more out of their devices.
Research always has a competitive element to it, and at CYBATHLON we go one step further and put research on display in the form of a public competition. The reason for having a public competition is to make the society more aware of the challenges people with disabilities face every day. The competition also has a spectacular and exciting element to it, which in turn opens up a new avenue for inclusion.
How exactly does the concept work?
CYBATHLON brings together teams from universities, companies and NGOs that put their latest assistive technologies to the test by solving everyday tasks. The devices they use are developed and built jointly by development teams and people with disabilities. The latter then use the competition to demonstrate to an audience how to do things like tie shoelaces with a robotic arm prosthesis, use stairs with a wheelchair or overcome uneven terrain with an exoskeleton.
The first international CYBATHLON competition took place in 2016 with more than 60 teams from all over the world that competed in six different disciplines. How has the competition developed over the years, and how has it been adapted to the needs of the people with disabilities?
Needs have changed and devices have been further developed over the last few years, so we have had to make adjustments to our competition as a result. We need to develop new challenges for the teams; for example, whereas the competition tasks for CYBATHLON 2016 and 2020 were specified to a very high degree, the tasks for CYBATHLON 2024 will be more unpredictable and variable in most of the disciplines.
The devices need to be designed in a manner that enables pilots to react quickly and flexibly to the various tasks they are assigned. For example, an exoskeleton needs to be able to react dynamically to stairway steps of differing heights, instead of just using it on stairways with steps that are always the same height.
Why are you developing further the competition in this manner?
People with disabilities often don’t know the tasks and barriers they will face in everyday situations in advance, or else the nature of such tasks and barriers can change over time or in different places. The new CYBATHLON competition is designed to better reflect actual daily life. The devices that were used over the past few years were in some cases still more or less in their infancy, as were the features they offered. Technology in many sectors has since advanced to such a degree that it is now possible for users to react dynamically to their surroundings.
All of the original six disciplines are still included in the competition. What criteria do you use to determine whether a CYBATHLON discipline and the associated tasks have proved to be successful?
More than anything else, a research field needs to have some type of everyday relevance if it is to be included as a CYBATHLON discipline, and remain one. The goal of CYBATHLON is to promote inclusion and autonomy for people with disabilities. We focus here on motor and sensory disabilities, where there is potential to minimise or eliminate the effects of barriers with the help of assistive technologies such as arm and leg prostheses, wheelchairs and intelligent canes for the blind. Exoskeletons can also play a major role in successful rehabilitation and the physical and mental health of people who suffer from paraplegia. Last but not least, disciplines also need to be safe and allow for the comparison of performance and results, as this is the only way to ensure a safe and fair competition.
How do you ensure fairness and comparability in the CYBATHLON disciplines?
With the help of the Races and Rules that are published for every period: In order to participate in a CYBATHLON competition, pilots and their devices need to meet certain criteria that are defined for each discipline in the Races and Rules. This means, for example, that pilots who wish to participate in the Exoskeleton Race must be completely paralysed from the waist down, or that the bicycles used in the Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race must not have a motor but absolutely need to have brakes.
Speaking of the Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race, this discipline doesn’t seem to directly relate to everyday life, except in terms of leisure. Why did the CYBATHLON Organising Committee decide to keep it as a competition discipline?
In general, functional electrical stimulation (FES) is a technology that uses electrical pulses (either with electrodes applied to the skin or through the implantation of electrodes) to enable paralysed muscles to be moved again. This makes it possible for a person suffering from paraplegia to ride a bicycle, for example. Aside from the positive effect cycling has on one’s physical health, this specific activity mainly offers an example of electrical muscular stimulation. In other words, the discipline is something like a placeholder for the entire field of research involved. Cycling itself is not really the point here in terms of our ultimate goals. Instead, it’s all about transferring research results to other areas and showing all the things that can be achieved with electrical muscular stimulation.
The Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) Race is a discipline that seems even farther removed from daily life. Here, pilots basically play a computer game…
The reason for including BCI in the CYBATHLON competition is similar to the reasons I just gave for the inclusion of the Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race: The computer game isn’t the point; the point is to use the game to show how mind-control and BCI technology work and to push further ahead with developments in this field. Once the technology is sufficiently advanced – at the moment it’s still in its infancy – it can be applied in various ways in everyday life. For example, people suffering from paraplegia will be able to use it to autonomously control wheelchairs or assistive robots.
What are the biggest changes that have been made to the competition tasks, aside from the greater uncertainty and variability you mentioned?
The Races and Rules now allow for implanted systems to be used in the BCI Race. These systems have the potential to be able to measure brain signals even more precisely and then transmit this data to the computer. In addition, continual signals can now be transmitted, instead of just on-off signals. Put simply, this means that a light no longer only has to be turned on or off; it also has to be possible to dim it. The ability to regulate signal strength offers major benefits in connection with many everyday applications.
With regard to the Exoskeleton Race, balance while in motion is now assessed by requiring the pilots to walk without crutches. Finally, the racing distance has been increased for the Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race in comparison to past events.
Two further disciplines in addition to the original six are to be included in 2024: a Vision Assistance Race for blind people and an Assistance Robot Race for people with severely limited use of their arms and legs. Why did you decide to include these two new disciplines?
We examined other potential new disciplines in addition to these two, including so-called soft exoskeletons. It was, however, difficult to ensure comparability and thus fairness with those other disciplines.
More than two billion people worldwide have some type of visual impairment, which makes visual impairment and blindness one of the most widespread disabilities in the world (source: WHO). Although a broad range of visual aids are available on the market, their functions are generally limited to specific areas or else they are not handy or easy to use. There still aren’t many intelligent visual assistant systems out there that can serve as an intuitive, comprehensive and reliable substitute for seeing. We would like to push research in this field because the technologies involved have the potential to improve the quality of life and autonomy for blind people.
The second new discipline – assistance robots – involves a relatively new category of assistive technologies. These technologies can assist people with restricted motor control by taking over some of the daily tasks that would otherwise be performed by caregivers. If the devices here are to be completely accepted, it must be possible to integrate them seamlessly and reliably into daily life in a manner that enables them to make a meaningful contribution to quality of life. These are the aspects that we are trying to develop further with the competition.
The CYBATHLON Organising Committee is relying on external experts to support the further development of the competition by helping to identify the needs and expectations of people with disabilities, as well as the challenges they face, and the potential and limitations of assistive technologies. Who are these experts?
One group consists of our Heads of Disciplines – one expert of each discipline. Most of them are doctoral candidates and researchers at ETH Zurich and other universities who make their specialised knowledge in various research fields available to us. The other group comprises researchers from organisations, foundations and other researchers whose work focuses on the relevant areas. For example, we developed the Vision Assistance Race in close cooperation with the Swiss Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBV).
Of course, we also exchange with those affected, the people with disabilities. They give us a lot of valuable input – the type of information that only a person who uses an arm prosthesis or a wheelchair can provide – and test the competition tasks. For example, the pilot of ETH’s Neurolegs team, Stefan Poth, and our ambassador, Michel Fornasier, are always ready and willing to test new tasks in their disciplines for us, and provide us with constructive feedback that allows us to optimise our competition.
Why does CYBATHLON refer to the users of assistive technologies as pilots?
The focus is always on people. An assistive technology – a device – never replaces the user of the technology; the device simply assists him or her. The user controls the device at all times; it’s never the other way around. We view the technologies “only” as a support mechanism for users, as a tool that supplements their own abilities. In other words, we do not view the technologies as being a “part” of the users, which is why we refer to the users as pilots rather than “cyborgs”, for example, which is a term we intentionally avoid using.
Still, the Assistance Robot Race seems to be all about the robots. What contribution do the pilots make in this race?
The focus is on people in this race as well, and the robot is only there to provide support for daily activities. The robots do not act autonomously but are instead controlled by the users. In other words, the pilots make a key contribution in this race as well. In addition, this race includes several tasks that can only be completed if there is direct physical interaction between the pilot and the robot.
With the new Vision Assistance Race, CYBATHLON also focuses on people with visual impairments. To what extent is CYBATHLON barrier-free in this area?
Ensuring barrier-free access, in a digital sense as well, is extremely important to CYBATHLON. This is why our website is evaluated on a regular basis by the foundation “Access for All”, and we also continuously further develop the website in line with criteria relating to digital accessibility.
Our CYBATHLON event live streams have subtitles in several languages, and also German and English audio descriptions that allow blind people to follow the events. It goes without saying that all physical event locations are made as accessible as possible in terms of both visual impairments and motor disabilities. For example, the Schluefweg Arena in Kloten, where CYBATHLON 2024 will be held, is equipped with a grandstand for wheelchair users and a tactile walking surface indicator system for blind people that will be implemented especially for the event.
Further information on the competition and the CYBATHLON disciplines can be found at www.cybathlon.com/competition.
CYBATHLON challenges development teams from all over the world to develop everyday assistive technologies for, and in collaboration with, people with disabilities. In a unique competition, the teams show the obstacles that people with disabilities face in their everyday lives and how technology can contribute to a world without barriers.