In his early days Lee Nam-hyun, in his twenties, is an avid swimmer. But in 2004, he broke his neck in the swimming pool, causing paralysis from the shoulder. It takes many years of recovery to recover from his injury.
The accident also temporarily brought his lifelong passion for singing to a halt. Opera and Korean pop songs are his favorites, and being able to sing again has become one of his primary goals for recovery. But the lack of core muscles and limited lung capacity meant that he could not even cough. He said that when he tried to sing, it sounded like he was complaining, or just whispering.
“My singing before and after is completely different,” he said. “Pitch, sound, beat-I can’t stand it anymore after I’m injured. It’s an inaudible sound.”
About two years after the accident, a health care professional pushed his diaphragm and forced him to cough. He learned that putting pressure on his abdomen can help him make a louder voice.
Nearly ten years later, he learned about the prototype device being made for this purpose through the therapist, and Lee began to collaborate with the Biorobotics Laboratory at Seoul National University. The device will eventually be named Exo-Abs. Its creator claims that it is the first robotic device of its kind that can help people breathe, cough, speak and sing by automatically applying pressure to the abdomen.
The creator of the device was originally a class project, hoping to turn it into a commercial product one day. In 2012, after pop singer Kim Hyuk-gun was knocked down by a car and paralyzed, researchers in the Robotics Lab first began to work on the prototype device. Kim is the lead singer of Cross, and the band’s songs are still a popular choice for Korean karaoke bars. He is known for a singing style that sounds more like shouting. Two years after his injury, he began to work with the Biorobotics Laboratory to develop a device that would allow him to sing at a similar volume. It was not until later that the researchers learned that patients with spinal cord injury usually not only need to move their limbs again, but also require breathing therapy.
“When you exhale, you are basically pushing your abdomen and reducing the volume of your lungs, so we tried to imitate this process,” said Cho Kyu-jin, a professor at Seoul National University.
Cho is the director of the University’s Soft Robotics Research Center, a biorobot laboratory that draws inspiration from the natural world (including the human body).In addition to Exo-Abs, Cho also created a manipulator called Exo-Glove, a glider with wings like a ladybug, and a robot that simulates a water skimmer, also known as Jesus bug Because they can walk on the water.
“All wearable robots today are about moving limbs, such as arms, shoulders and legs,” he said. Exo-Abs is different because “it basically changes the overall volume of your body.” But he said that the potential of the device is largely untapped because it is not well known.
Patients with stroke or neurological disease usually require ongoing care, including respiratory therapy. Failure to clean the breathing passages can lead to diseases such as pneumonia and premature death. Today, people use devices such as ventilator masks to help them breathe, but the creators of Exo-Abs believe that their devices could one day replace some people’s ventilators.
Unlike existing equipment that may require the use of a mask or ventilator, Exo-Abs can be hidden under a shirt. The machine used to operate the device is installed in a backpack that can be strapped to the back of a wheelchair. The current iteration of Exo-Abs involves straps placed on the chest and abdomen to measure breathing and compress the diaphragm.
This is the third version of Exo-Abs. The first is manually controlled by the user using a joystick and must be plugged into a power outlet. The second is the backpack version, which is suitable for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other diseases. They may not always need help but may encounter difficulties, for example, climbing stairs without panting.
Use the latest version of Exo-Abs artificial intelligence Regulate the pressure applied to the person’s abdomen. Artificial intelligence is fed by sensors, including a microphone to detect when a person is speaking, and an elastic tube through a belt around the abdomen to monitor breathing levels. It also affects a person’s physical fitness, body shape, the hardness of the user’s abdominal cavity, and the user’s activities. For example, singing that requires a lot of effort like an opera may be more stressful than sitting and talking peacefully.
Lee Sang-yoep, a PhD student at Seoul National University in collaboration with Cho, envisions other uses of Exo-Abs, such as synchronizing artificial abdominal muscles with music or singing puzzle games, such as One hand clapping.