"I've always known that there wouldn't be a cure for cerebral palsy because it’s something you're born with. I knew there wasn't going to be a pill, and I'd gotten over that pretty early. I understood that was the reality," says Tom Garside, 25.
"But I'd always seen things in the media about these futuristic devices that can help people and make things easier. You're watching 'The Jetsons' as a kid or playing 'Mega Man' and you see these technologies being used in fantastic ways.
"It's pretty obvious they have to start somewhere."
Garside is a University of Toronto student working on a Masters of Information — or as he puts it, studying to be a "futurist librarian." The future has always appealed to him, perhaps because he's reliant on aged technologies like canes and wheelchairs to get around. He describes life with cerebral palsy like "wearing a very wet snow coat all the time."
"I'm able to walk independently short distances, but for longer distances my mobility is pretty compromised."
Due to his cerebral palsy, his hamstrings are in tension all the time and he can't straighten his legs. Garside, given his sci-fi proclivities, decided he needed a robot leg. Not so he could "run an Ironman" (pun presumably intended) but just so he could live his life better.
So he took the idea to the university, which matched him with a group of engineering students who wanted to take up his cause. And nearly two years later, voila.
"It's the little things that I'm really looking forward to," he says. "Being able to stand and chop vegetables, walk to public transportation, fold laundry and all those things that aren't that exciting but are a part of everyday living. As well as to just socialize. People are very friendly to me, but I'd love to be able to see them eye to eye."
After enrolling at U of T in the fall of 2013, Garside approached a professor who was a specialist in wearable tech, and they went to the dean. They wanted to see if they could get a prototype to test from a company that specializes in these "emerging devices" – like Japan's ominously named Cyberdyne, which makes a $20,000 exoskeleton cyborg suit called HAL, or Honda's Bodyweight Support Assist.
The administrator instead suggested that Garside team up with some engineering students who could work on the robot leg as an academic project. An electrical and computer engineering prof posted Garside's idea.
"I said 'I'm looking to invent this pair of robot legs,'" Garside remembers. "I'm not sure how it's going to turn out, but I think it would be a pretty cool project. The technology is there, it just needs to be applied."
Four fourth-year students signed on: Sanjana Seerala, Lakmini Perera, Kayatri Rangarajan, and Elizabeth Sumitro. Garside then contacted a volunteer through the charity Tetra to fabricate the brace, which would be powered by off-the-shelf radio-controlled motors, and had some motion-capture work done to gather data on his movements.
But he says the watershed moment was when the women picked up The Garside Project ("Not my idea," he jokes, "the self-titled album seems a little obvious.") to build the control system to make it actually work.
"For the past few years I've been interested in biomedical applications for what I've been learning in school [because] it has an impact on people's quality of life. So this project was definitely in the vein of what I'd like to do from here on out," says Sumitro, who begins her Master's of biomedical engineering degree in September.
"The brace uses foot pressure," she explains of their elegantly simple design, one of several control schemes they went through. The Japanese HAL project, for instance, uses brainwaves and nerve impulses.
"There are sensors at the heel and the base of the foot and those are able to detect what point of the stride cycle Tom is in and extend the leg accordingly. So this could have applications even with just the aging population who have difficulties with bending and flexing their limbs."
Sanjana Seerala, 23, says the social impact of this particular project "was definitely the biggest motivation for me because it was a real client we were going to help."
"He was extremely excited to actually see it, and we felt really happy seeing him so excited," she adds. "Of course, we were also scared putting it on him for the first time, but I'm glad it was alright."
Garside, however, wasn't scared at all. Though the women had been working on the project for two semesters, it had existed in Garside's mind since he was a kid.
"I was ecstatic! Even though I was there physically step-by-step along the way, I still couldn't get over it. I've seen it develop and grow, but just wearing it for the first time, and feeling it around my leg was really just amazing," he says.
"I'm really looking forward to going on a hike, there are some great places in Toronto and near Sault Ste. Marie where I'm from."
Seerala says their device has a purposefully low price because what's being developed elsewhere isn't affordable to the general public.
"The current prototype that we made was a thousand dollars so it's a lot cheaper."
That said, it's still a prototype and could take up to 10 years before hitting the mass market.
Sumitro notes that "there are so many challenges, including battery life or being able to handle different situations like stairs or different environments — what happens when it rains or snows? — but it's definitely a viable direction."
The Garside Project is being handed off to a new set of fourth-year students to iterate and improve upon what Seerala amusingly dubbed the project's "next steps."
This includes developing a second leg and a communication system to coordinate movement and "in order to make it accessible to a wide range of people, the design needs to be easily adaptable to modifications based on individual needs."
She notes they'll also need to develop a manufacturing processes to make it more compact and sellable.
"I think this is going to be huge," says Garside. "As much as I am the test pilot for the device, I really see this as being a game-changer for a lot of people, especially the disabled but also those who are not technically disabled but as people get older, especially the baby boomer population.
"I can see these devices mass produced and being part of the natural aging process. They don't cause you to abdicate and become lazy, they allow you to be active for longer.
"This is the time when those devices that were fiction are now becoming real."
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