Welcome to the Cyborg Olympics
Prosthetic limbs have come a long way in recent years. But there are plenty of problems still to solve: knees are rarely motorised, making it difficult to climb stairs. Arm prostheses are often shunned because they don't provide enough benefit.
So Riener, 47, has created the Cybathlon. On October 8, the biannual competition will pit 80 teams from around the globe who develop assistive technologies against one another in a series of rigorous athletic challenges.
Events include tests of powered exoskeletons, arm and leg prostheses, powered-wheelchair races and a dash around an obstacle course for brain-computer interfaces. More than 6,000 people will watch the event at the SWISS Arena in Kloten, Switzerland; the others will be able to follow the contest on a livestream and on Swiss television.
British competitor Paul Moore, 53, is a former Paralympian with a spinal-cord injury; he will compete in the Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) bike race. FES bikes stimulate muscles using currents passing through electrodes to contract muscles, so enabling pedalling, allowing the paralysed to cycle. "We may be a very elite selection of people who go to the Paralympics," he says. "Cybathlon opens the door to what can be achieved and what is available for everybody."
The disciplines are designed to have relevant real-life applications: the Powered Arm Prosthesis event will ask competitors to cut bread, open a jam jar and carry boxes. But most importantly, it will bring together the developers of assistive technology with the people who use it every day.
"Often the developers talk too little to the people who actually have the needs. They don't talk to the patients, or with doctors," says Riener. This year's Cybathlon, he hopes, will lead to new developments - which in turn will be honed in future events. After all, nothing spurs people to go faster and further like a little healthy competition.