Representational image: Children in Honduras enjoy a game of football.
During the opening of the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil Thursday, a differently abled person wearing a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton is expected to make the first kick of the championship.
Part of the "Walk Again Project", an international collaboration of more than 100 scientists, eight Brazilian patients who are paralysed from the waist down have been training for months to use the exoskeleton, researchers said.
"The system works by recording electrical activity in the patient's brain, recognising his or her intention - such as to take a step or kick a ball - and translating that to action," explained professor Miguel Nicolelis of US-based Duke University and the International Institute for Neurosciences of Natal, Brazil.
The system also gives the patient tactile feedback using sensitive artificial skin.
A sense of touch would be essential for the patient's emotional comfort as well as control over the exoskeleton.
"Thus the challenge was to give a paralysed person, together with the ability to walk, the feeling of touching the ground," added Gordon Cheng, head of the Institute for Cognitive Systems at the Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM), Germany.
As part of the "CellulARSkin" technology, the basic exoskeleton unit is a flat, six-sided package of electronic components including a low-power-consumption microprocessor.
It has sensors that detect pre-touch proximity, pressure, vibration, temperature, and even movement in three-dimensional space.
Any number of these individual "cells" can be networked together in a honeycomb pattern, protected in the current prototype by a rubbery skin of molded elastomer.
According to Cheng, "It is not just the sensor that is important. The intelligence of the sensor is even more important."
Cheng views the FIFA event as a public demonstration of what science can do for people.
"Also, I see it as a great tribute to all the patients' hard work and their bravery!" he added.