Think robot and the first thing that jumps to mind probably isn't wearable. But it soon might - maybe not as sexily as Milla Jovovich's skimpy bandage costume in The Fifth Element, but apparently in the 1997 Luc Besson film, designer Jean Paul Gaultier was channeling the future of fashion.
Wearable robots embedded in webbing and positioned around the lower half of the body like an exoskeleton are being developed at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The Leeloo-like criss-crossing of the Soft Exosuit contains flexible sensors and low-power microprocessors that monitor whether the wearer is walking, running, climbing, crouching, etc. The exoskeletal robotics are powered by batteries and motors mounted on the waist (hello, fannypack!). Incoming sensory feedback prompts cables contained within the Leeloo-webbing to act in parallel - and mimic - the muscles and tendons beneath, providing (hopefully) just the right amount of assistance at just the right time.
"Humans are optimized to walk very efficiently," explains Wyss Institute Core Faculty member Conor Walsh, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). However, when someone has to carry a heavy load or is disabled, their mobility suffers. So the way the Wyss researchers are attempting to solve this is by piggybacking onto what already works amazingly well: our natural gait. "The body and legs have a pendulum-like motion and the purpose of muscles is to inject impulses - bursts of energy - at the right time, in order to maintain this motion," continues Walsh. "It's a passive-dynamic process and the reason human walking is so efficient."
Walking while schlepping heavy loads is part of life in the field for soldiers. Having them do so faster, for longer and remain injury free obviously appeals to the military. Which is one of the reasons this research is being underwritten to the tune of almost $3 million by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
"While the idea of a wearable robot is not new, our design approach certainly is," adds Walsh, pointing out that wearable-robot technology is spawning the development of entirely new forms of functional textiles, flexible power systems, soft sensors, and control strategies that enable intuitive and seamless human-machine interaction.
But how did Gaultier get there first? Who knows...not even the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm who observed in The Age of Extremes:
Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously nonanalytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, remains one of the most obscure questions in history and, for the historian of culture, one of the most central.
- Lesley Scott
(Jean Paul Gaultier, Costume sketch for The Fifth Element, directed by Luc Besson, 1997 © Jean Paul Gaultier via source)