What would you do with a robotic third thumb?

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Take a moment to imagine what unheard sounds famed psychedelic rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix could have conjured up if he had an extra digit to work with. Likewise, consider how much faster historical painters like Frida Kahlo or Vincent van Gogh could have amassed their life’s work if they had simply been able to hold their oil paint and brush in the same hand. Each of these artists was limited by the limitations of their biological anatomy, but that won’t necessarily be the case for future creators thanks to a new 3D-printed wearable robot, appropriately the “The third thumb.” The thumb, part of a growing area of ​​technology called wearable motor augmentation, is being designed to enhance users’ biological capabilities to ensure accessibility and equal access.

Credit: Dani Clode Design / The Plasticity Lab

How does the Third Thumb work?

Created by University of Cambridge augmentation and prosthetics designer Dani Clode, the Third Thumb is a 3D-printed robotic thumb controlled by the user’s toes. Once fitted with a wristband, the robot digit sits on the side of a palm opposite the user’s biological thumb and resembles a sixth, elongated finger. Users control the thumb by pressing a pair of sensors under each big toe. Pressure exerted by the right toe moves the third thumb back and forth, while pressure from the left toe moves it up and down. The controls are wireless and proportional, so faster movement from the toes results in a similarly quick movement with the thumb. By reducing the pressure on the toes, the thumb returns to its original position.

Researchers believe this mechanical thumb could soon help people who have lost a limb regain their mobility and functionality. But The Third Thumb’s potential applications are not just limited to helping users with lost fingers. Ultimately, researchers believe it could broadly improve biological functioning, allowing wearers to perform tasks that would normally be difficult or impossible to perform with the thumb and four fingers. Researchers exploring wearable motorcycle automation, including sci-fi-esque exoskeleton suits and complex mechanical limbs, believe these tools could ultimately increase both productivity and safety.

Although the original design for The Third Thumb dates back to 2017, researchers at the University of Cambridge this week released the results of the first large-scale round of human testing of the device as part of a article published in the magazine Science Robotics. The researchers took large and small versions of the device to the 2022 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, where they tested it on 596 people over five days. Participants in the experiment ranged in age from 3 to 96 years old and also varied in terms of gender, ethnicity and handedness. Armed with the groups of willing volunteers, researchers set out to determine whether this broad group of people could easily understand the thumb and use it effectively.

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Credit: Dani Clode Design / The Plasticity Lab

An overwhelming majority of testers found the Third Thumb easy to use

During their testing, the study emphasized the importance of teaching patricians to use the device quickly and intuitively. Lucy Dowdall, one of the paper’s co-authors, said wearable devices such as The Third Thumb and even more intensive brain-computer interfaces such as those currently being developed by Elon Musk’s Neuralink will need to be crucial to “seamlessly integrate” with the motor and cognitive functions of a user. if they ever want to gain traction.

“We were really interested in this study to see how well people initially pick up those initial motor skills,” Dowdall said. “So in the first few moments of use, they can really use the Third Thumb.”

The results of the experiment were encouraging. Nearly all (98%) participants were able to successfully equip the Third Thumb and manipulate objects within the first minute of wearing it. But simply moving objects and doing so expertly are completely different stories. To test the latter, the researchers had the patricians undergo two separate tests. First, researchers asked participants to use their new digit to grab pegs from a pegboard and place them in a basket within 60 seconds. More than half (333) completed the task. The testers were then asked to use the thumb in addition to their other fingers to attempt to grasp a variety of foam objects that required varying levels of dexterity to hold and place in the basket in the same manner. This time, 246 participants completed the test.

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“We were surprised by how good everyone was, especially in the exhibition setting, but also by the wide age range we have,” Dowdall added. “Everyone could do a task well.”

Credit: Dani Clode Design / The Plasticity Lab

Researchers want to introduce accessibility early in the design process

The researchers note that they were encouraged not only by the large number of participants who could use the thumb, but also by their wide demographic diversity. Users of all ages were able to use the thumb quickly and successfully to some extent. Likewise, the researchers say they measured no noticeable difference in overall performance between genders or between left- and right-handed people. That ease of use across biological differences is crucial, the researchers note, to help prevent any group or subgroup from benefiting disproportionately from the technology that gains an unfair advantage. While that concern may seem premature for the still relatively nascent biological limb technology, the researchers are trying to build in ethical and justice considerations from the ground up.

“Given the diversity of bodies, it is critical that the design phase of wearable technology is as inclusive as possible,” Clode said in a statement. “It is equally important that these devices are accessible and functional for a wide range of users.”

Recent new technologies are filled with counterexamples where those same considerations were not properly emphasized. By augmented reality And automated speech detection systems who struggle to work well for people of color car safety standards While the technology is prioritized for “average” male bodies, the technology is inundated with examples of seemingly benign design considerations that may lead to disparate impacts for certain groups in the future. Researchers want to try to prevent these results from being repeated with The Third Thumb.

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Credit: Dani Clode Design / The Plasticity Lab

“These technologies offer exciting new possibilities that can benefit society, but it is critical that we consider how they can benefit all people equally, especially marginalized communities who are often excluded from innovation research and development ,” said Professor Tamar Makin of the University of Cambridge in a statement. “To ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate and benefit from these exciting advances, we must explicitly integrate and measure inclusivity at the earliest possible stages of the research and development process.”

Although the test subjects at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition were largely limited to moving blocks and foam, researchers have already provided a glimpse of The Third Thumb’s niftier potential. In videos and photos demonstrating the tests, users have shown that the thumb is strong enough to squeeze fruit, but precise enough to pinch wire with another finger. Elsewhere, researchers can be seen cracking one egg while nestling another safely on their thumb. Another photo shows a painter holding a cup of ink with the thumb while making a grabbing motion with that same hand to manipulate a brush. And yes, apparently the thumb can also be used to fret chords on a guitar.

Clode, the creator of the Third Thumb, admitted that learning to use the device can seem “pretty weird” for people who have lived their lives with ten digits and two thumbs. That said, the latest research suggests that appearances can be deceiving.

“What’s really exciting about the Thumb is that it seems quite complex from the outset, when in reality it isn’t,” says Clode. “People can use it quickly and easily within one minute. It doesn’t take years of training or even months or even days.”

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