After the Paralympics comes the tech-fuelled 'Cybathlon'

Where cyborgs compete for sporting glory

This weekend, athletes with robotic prostheses from around the world will gather in Zurich for the world's first 'Cybathlon'. They'll be competing across a number of disciplines to test the very latest assistive technologies.

For example, there are races for powered wheelchairs and exoskeletons. There's a competition to complete a set of tasks with a robotic arm, and a similar one for robotic legs. The cycling race only allows for pedalling by the artificial stimulation of motor nerves.

Then there's the Brain-Computer Interface race, which is perhaps the most fascinating of all. In it, athletes paralysed from the neck down wear a cap equipped with electrodes and compete to control avatars in a specially-developed computer game, testing the reliability and precision of the technology.

People in Daily Life

The event is the brainchild of Robert Riener, a professor of Sensory-Motor Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. "We want to motivate developers to create technologies that provide real support to people in daily life," he explains.

That's why many of the competitions at the Cybathlon will feature everyday obstacles like doors, stairs and ramps. "Systems need to be developed that provide help to people with disabilities where they need it the most," says Riener.

But the biggest difference between the Cybathlon and the Paralympics is technology. Use of powered prostheses is forbidden in the Paralympics, but encouraged at the Cybathlon. "Although people are at the centre of our event, technology also plays a relatively large role," Riener said.

Assistive Technology

Ultimately, the objective is to drive forward the development of prostheses by showcasing how well it's possible to use them. "We hope Cybathlon's competitive nature will boost the development of powered assistive technology in the long term," said Riener. "It's already having a positive impact."

If you'd like to watch, you'll be able to do so on 8 October. The whole event will be livestreamed across the web on the Cybathlon's website.

  • Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.