Cybathlon: A new type of competition for people with disabilities

Interview with Prof. Robert Riener Head of Department of Health Sciences and Technology, Director of Sensory-Motor Systems Lab, IRIS, ETH Zurich


Technical means that lend superpowers to humans are quite normal in comics and movies. In reality, their purpose is much more mundane: They are supposed to help people with disabilities in everyday life. MEDICA MEDICINE + SPORTS CONFERENCE, that takes place at MEDICA in November, is dealing with this topic, too.

Photo: Smiling man with short grey-black hair - Prof. Robert Riener; Copyright: ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

Prof. Robert Riener; ©ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

In the interview with, Prof. Robert Riener talks about the "Cybathlon", a competition for people using assistive technology, what these technologies mean for sports medicine and where robotics in medicine is heading.

Prof. Riener, we’re very glad that you will be delivering the opening keynote speech on the topic of the Cybathlon at the fourth MEDICA MEDICINE + SPORTS CONFERENCE on 15 November. Can you tell us what the Cybathlon is all about?

The Cybathlon is a new type of competition that will have its world premiere in Zurich on 8 October. People with disabilities will compete with one another and use robot-supported assistance technologies to cope with everyday obstacles such as stairs, ramps, doors and uneven terrain. The "pilots", who will come from 23 countries, will compete in six different disciplines. These will include a virtual race with brian-interface control, a bicycle race using muscle stimulation, various race tracks for people with arm or leg prostheses, and races for electronically powered wheelchairs and exoskeletons. The three best competitors in each discipline, as well as the research laboratories and development teams working behind the scenes, will be able to win gold, silver and bronze medals.

What would you like to achieve through the Cybathlon?

We have organized the Cybathlon in order to make daily life easier for people with disabilities. In many cases, the "high-tech" devices that are available today are not sufficiently adapted to the users' needs, which is also true of medical technology. We would therefore like to use the Cybathlon to promote the development in the field of assistance technologies that make daily life activity easier for people with a motor disability. And we are already making good progress. Several teams of students and researchers have already developed new lab templates in cooperation with the "pilots". They are on the point of establishing companies that will be able to offer these technologies as market-ready products in the near future. Companies and teams that are not participating in the Cybathlon are also forging ahead with the development of new technologies so that they can keep up with their competitors. The whole field is really starting to move.

The opening theme of this year's MEDICA MEDICINE + SPORTS CONFERENCE will be "Sports medicine 2030". To what extent can the findings resulting from the Cybathlon play a role in the future of sports medicine and sports in general?

Riener: The development surge that is now beginning in the field of assistive technologies will also spark technology and innovation surges in sports technology and sports medicine. The step from prostheses and wheelchairs to sports devices, sports clothing and other types of assistive devices is not a very big one, because the basic components are often the same, and many large companies already offer a broad range of products. In addition, technologies can make it easier for people with disabilities to access different kinds of sports. However, the jumping and running prostheses of the Paralympics star Markus Rehm, which are nowadays so greatly admired, are sensational for jumping, but they are not useful for daily activities. We are not going to have a Terminator anytime soon, but many simpler "body enhancements" are already available today. In the long term we will have to find a balance between utility and risk for the new technologies, especially if they are closely interacting with the user's body or even implanted into the body. However, this search for the right balance is carried out for every new technology. Cell phones and cars are also technologies that make daily life easier by expanding the user's range of action. However, they can also pose a danger to individuals and society. Nonetheless, their utility is so great and the risks are so manageable that these technologies are generally very well accepted today.

Cybathlon-Testlauf - Bildergalerie

Die ETH Zürich organisierte Mitte Juli 2015 einen Cybathlon Testlauf in der SWISS Arena in Kloten. Der eigentliche Cybathlon findet im Herbst 2016 statt. 30 Teams aus 15 Ländern testeten die Parcours und die Aufgaben, die in den sechs Disziplinen zu lösen sind.

Klicken Sie auf die Pfeile rechts und links vom Bild und Sie bekommen weitere Bilder angezeigt. Für die Großansicht klicken Sie auf das Symbol rechts unten in der Ecke des Bildmotivs.

Photo: two recumbent bicycle bikers
In the FES discipline, pilots with complete spinal cord injuries take part in a bike race with the help of functional electrical stimulation.
Photo: man with arm prostheses takes a colored ball
Agility course with motorised arm prostheses: the muscle activity in the arm is detected and converted into the corresponding movement in the prosthesis. The various challenges are designed to resemble daily tasks as closely as possible.
Photo: man with arm prostheses hangs up papers with clothes pins
Agility course with motorised arm prostheses: the muscle activity in the arm is detected and converted into the corresponding movement in the prosthesis. The various challenges are designed to resemble daily tasks as closely as possible.
Photo: man with electrodes at his head sits in front of a computer
Virtual brain-computer interface race: BCI involves detecting and then converting brainwaves into control signals, making it possible for participants to use their thoughts to control an avatar in a computer game.
Photo: man with leg prosthesis takes an obstacle course
Obstacle course with motorised leg prostheses. Controlling motorised prostheses is difficult: the wearer's intended movements must be correctly conveyed to the leg prosthesis.
Photo: man with an electric wheelchair drives through a obstacle course
Obstacle course with motorised leg prostheses: Controlling motorised prostheses is difficult: the wearer's intended movements must be correctly conveyed to the leg prosthesis.
Photo: man drives with his wheelchair with caterpillar-like device upstairs
This wheelchair can climb stairs thanks to a caterpillar-like device.
What are you doing at the Department of Health Sciences and Technology besides the Cybathlon?

Riener: I am a professor of sensory-motor systems, and I develop robotics that interfaces with human beings, especially in the areas of rehabilitation and sports. In the field of rehabilitation there are two kinds of devices: devices to help the user in everyday life, and devices for use in clinics, for example to support movement therapy. Here I work together with companies that sell such devices. One practical example are exoskeletons for stroke and spinal cord indjured patients.

In addition, I am currently the head of our Department of Health Sciences and Technology, which currently includes more than 30 professors.

Which innovations from the field of robotics do you think will be used in the field of healthcare in the next ten years?

Riener: Exoskeletons are now coming onto the market as commercial devices, but in laboratories we’ve already been familiar with them for quite a long period of time. This development will continue. In addition, leg prostheses with active drive systems will also come onto the market. Such motorized prostheses will make it easier for users to climb up hills and stairs, especially if there are no railings.

For the upper extremities there will be osseointegrated systems in the future. In addition, by means of integrated myographic electrodes they will enable their wearers to transform muscle activity into control commands for arm prostheses.

Electrostimulation systems will play an important role in the generation of muscle activity and functional movements.

One growing research area deals with brain-computer interfaces. Most of the applications we have received for the Cybathlon come from this discipline. The brain-computer interfaces function well in the lab, but unfortunately, they still don not work well in everyday life situations. Wearing a cap with 40 electrodes on your head is not something you would want to do every day. Besides, there are still some technical challenges to resolve, such as the insufficient reliability of intention recognition systems and the time lag between a thought signal and its detection after some processing. If this technology is used for steering a wheelchair or an exoskeleton, time lags of two or three seconds could be fatal. Implants function best for this purpose, but in most cases they are ethically questionable. In other words, this research is exciting, and we have got a lot to do!

What kinds of things do you do when you’re not conducting research, teaching or making presentations? 

Riener: I like to do sports: hiking, rowing on Lake Zurich, running and skiing.

What are you going to present at the MEDICA MEDICINE + SPORTS CONFERENCE on 15 November?

Riener: The conference participants will be able to find out at first hand about the history of the Cybathlon and its highlights and results. I am looking forward to networking with practitioners of sports medicine and manufacturers of sports devices. Together, we may be able to find ways to systematically avoid frequently occurring injuries. Or we could organize a RoboCup in which people compete against robots.



If you want to witness the Cybathlon at 8. October live, you can find more information at

Prof. Riener will give the keynote "Cybathlon: A new type of competition for people with disabilities" at the 4. MEDICA MEDICINE + SPORTS CONFERENCE, at 15. November 2016.