Professor Riener was inspired to combat these problems himself after witnessing an event that changed his life. In Chicago’s Willis Tower in 2012, 31-year-old software engineer Zac Vawter climbed 103 flights of stairs using a powered knee prosthesis – controlled by his mind. He was the first person in history to do so. And seeing him attract so much positive media attention, Professor Riener decided to create his own event: a competition that would spark international public interest and spotlight the issues close to his heart. And so the Cybathlon was born.
‘Not turning the pilots into a freak show was a challenge,’ he explains. ‘So we were very careful to make it serious and to target the real problems.’ They filled all 8,000 seats in the Swiss Arena for the first Cybathlon in 2016, captivating the audience.
‘As an event, it’s very much focused on that matching up of end users with novel technology, and then focusing it on problems that are based on the real world,’ says Dr Ian Radcliffe, Imperial College’s Cybathlon team co-ordinator. ‘It’s not based purely on technical performance, but around the ability to achieve everyday tasks – which is really exciting and new.’