Putting the bio in tech: FierceBiotech tests a robotic 'dermoskeleton'

(Justin Mallet)

“Don’t hesitate!” 

That’s what Jean-Philippe “JP” Clark said as I approached a staircase, strapped into a robotic device called Keeogo. Needless to say, I did the exact opposite, and my trip up and down the stairs was less than smooth. 

The device is what its maker, B-Temia, calls a “dermoskeleton.” Unlike other robotic exoskeletons, most of which are designed to help paraplegics regain their ability to walk, Keeogo was made to help people with whatever movements for which they need assistance—namely, to “keep on going.” That includes helping people walk, get out of a chair, stand up after tying a shoe and, yes, climb stairs.

B-Temia is selling Keeogo in markets that treat it as a Class I device, meaning it's not specific to any indication and doesn't need a prescription from a doctor. These countries include Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan, where people with conditions ranging from incomplete spinal cord injury and knee osteoarthritis to stroke and multiple sclerosis are using Keeogo. For the U.S. and other markets that treat it as a Class II device, the company is in talks with regulators to figure out the best way forward.

Worn on the hips and legs, Keeogo essentially senses when the wearer begins a movement and then helps them complete it. 

Clark, a junior system engineer at Quebec City-based B-Temia, fitted me with the device. A belt, worn snugly on the hips, anchors the rest of the system. That includes the human-machine interface—a contraption of sensors, hinges, straps and motors that allows the transfer of force from the device to the human body—and the control unit, which is used to switch the device on and off and to control the amount of help it gives the user. Because I’m an able-bodied person, Clark turned mine down to the lowest pre-set level. He later tweaked the settings so the device would give me even less assistance. 

“Among other things, we have sensors at the hips and the knees, which allow the device to evaluate the motion of your legs. This information is then fed to the Keeogo’s algorithm, which will understand their intentions, calculate and provide the necessary assistance,” Clark said. Among other tasks, his work includes developing and improving the artificial intelligence of Keeogo and managing the integration of new components. 

(Justin Mallet)

At about 15 pounds, the device itself seemed heavy, but once it was switched on, it carried its own weight. Big movements using both legs at the same time felt the most natural. I had a pleasant boost when jumping straight up and getting out of a chair. Squatting and standing back up was a little more jarring—on my way down, I had to push through some resistance to get to the bottom of the squat. At the bottom, I could hang out there without accumulating the muscle fatigue that usually comes with holding any position for a length of time. As soon as I decided I wanted out of the squat, I made a small move and the system sprang me back up.

An unexpected perk was that the device would catch and hold me in a half-squat, which felt like perching on the edge of a chair. If I had a Keeogo of my own, I’d just half-squat every time I was in a queue for anything. 

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Walking and climbing stairs were different. The feeling is of being gently forced—if one can be gently forced—to take steps forward. Because I didn’t really need the assistance, my steps felt mechanical and exaggerated, the machine kicking my lower legs out higher and further than I would have done so walking normally. 

As for stairs, you can't second-guess them, because once the system has decided it’s going to help you complete a movement, it’s going to help you complete it. It propels your leg forward even if you change your mind halfway through. Though relatively harmless on flat ground, the complication of stairs could result in stubbing a toe, tripping, tangling limbs—the possibilities are endless! 

I was uncomfortable on the stairs because I felt as if I wasn’t in control of my own movement. But I understand that the extra push would be welcome for someone without the strength to finish the movement. Clark knew I hated the stairs, so naturally, he had me practice them. Adjusting the assistance down helped—I felt like the machine was giving me a little boost, rather than forcing me to keep climbing. 

He also had me try running in the device. There are no videos of that, for which I can only be thankful.