This tech has the potential of healing patients faster than traditional physical therapy.
A person who has suffered from a stroke or spinal-cord injury might need to use crutches or a wheelchair as they gradually regain lost motion through physical therapy.
But these patients could see drastically different effects strapping on a robotic bodysuit or a bionic limb and walking around like Iron Man as they heal. And such digital hardware has the potential to make them recover faster, as well.
This is the thinking at several privately held medical robotics companies, several of whom are planning major roll-outs of the technology to thousands of rehabilitation clinics nationwide, and even the home. Price points are coming down while demand among physical therapists is beginning to rise, several company founders say.
Venture investors for the most part have stayed on the sidelines, questioning how large the market for high-tech rehabilitation products is really likely to be.
But company founders say the notoriously sleepy market could quickly come alive, as tens of thousands of physical therapists realize that their clinics can afford a robotic exoskeletons or a remote-controlled limb, and that using such gadgets has a profound effect on patients.
“You should see the psychological effect from using this kind of device,” said Nathan Harding, chief executive of California-based robotic-exoskeleton maker Ekso Bionics Inc.
“Instead of sitting in a wheelchair, this person just gets up and walks. It’s wonderful to see that. We had this prototype that we were taking around to hospitals, but we had to re-design it. It had an [off] button on the back, and we had to move that button.
“The first thing a person does when they see a loved one get up and walk is they run up and throw their arms around them. We learned pretty fast that someone is going to run up and hug that person, so we definitely had to move that [off] button.”
Is such futuristic technology destined to remain in the realm of astronauts and elite soldiers, or will everyday people soon get the chance to feel futuristic instead of disabled?