Hugh Herr, the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, is known for his work on high-tech bionic limbs, and for demonstrating new prosthetic technologies on himself (he lost his legs in a climbing accident age 17). At TED this week, Herr showed off one of his more recent innovations in the space.
After a talk discussing the science of bionic limbs, Herr brought out Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dance teacher who lost part of a leg in the Boston bombing last year. For the first time since her leg amputation, she performed a short ballroom dancing routine.This was made possible by a special kind of bionic limb, designed by Herr and his colleagues at MIT specifically for dancing.
For over 200 days, the researchers studied dance. They brought in dancers with biological limbs, studied how they moved, and examined the forces they applied on the dance floor. The new "dance limb" has 12 sensors, a synthetic motor system that can move the joint, and microprocessors that run the limb's controllers. The system is programmed so that the motor moves the limb in a way that's appropriate for dance.
"It was so new. We had never looked at something like dance," Herr explained in a briefing after his talk. "I understand her dream and emotionally related to her dream to return to dance. It's similar to what I went through." Herr says he's now able to climb at a more advanced level than when he had biological legs.
Haslet-Davis's new limb is only intended for dancing; she switches to a different bionic limb for regular walking. Eventually, Herr envisions a time when bionic limbs can switch modes for different activities.
Herr's work has been criticized in the past by advocates who argue that bionic limbs are a waste of time when many people don't even have access to basic wheelchairs. He argues, however, that bionic limbs—which can cost as much as a nice car—ultimately reduce health care costs.
They allow people to return to their jobs quickly, Herr said, avoiding workers' compensation costs. And they can prevent injuries resulting from prosthetics that don't emulate normal function as effectively as high-tech limbs. "High tech does not necessarily equal economic burden," he said.