From weighty silence to clamorous applause

 Robert Riener,   for Sensory-Motor Systems and founder of the Cybathlon, in the

Robert Riener, for Sensory-Motor Systems and founder of the Cybathlon, in the Swiss Arena in Kloten. (Photograph: ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella)

The first ever Cybathlon took place a week ago in the sold-out Swiss Arena in Kloten. Founder Robert Riener takes stock.

ETH News: A week has passed since the Cybathlon. How do you feel when you look back on it?
Robert Riener: Happy and relieved. Happy because of all the positive results and feedback we received, even from people who were initially critical of the Cybathlon. And relieved that everything worked out so well from a logistical and technical perspective. There was a moment on Friday evening, the night before the Cybathlon, when I was the last to leave the Arena at half past midnight and switched off the lights. It was so quiet that I could hear my own heartbeat and suddenly I was very aware of the responsibility I bore. I realised just how much could go wrong, but also what a great opportunity lay ahead of us.

The end result was incredible - the atmosphere in the stadium was electric. Did that surprise you?
The atmosphere and the noise level in particular exceeded all my expectations. Seeing the audience rooting for every single team and cheering them on at the top of their voices, and how the pilots stepped or drove over the finish line with tears in their eyes - that was deeply moving.

Is there anything that particularly surprised you?
Something that didn’t really surprise me, but I feel is worth highlighting nonetheless, is that in some of the Cybathlon races the winners or top finishers were using simple, non-motorised prostheses rather than high-tech models. That isn’t to say that all the research was a waste of time, but rather that there remains a wealth of untapped potential in mechanical assistive devices.

What would you do differently in future Cybathlons?
Just like the teams that took part in the Cybathlon, we could have used a ‘pilot’ in our core project team, i.e. someone with physical disabilities who scrutinises every decision from the signage through to the catering, and is also actively involved in the day-to-day work. Of course, we established a close dialogue with disabled people from the very beginning of the planning process, but having a colleague on site who was in a wheelchair and could be involved in everyday decisions would have been useful.

What’s next for the Cybathlon?
It’s clear that the Cybathlon will return and remain an ETH event in future. However, we will need to work with the Executive Board to evaluate at what intervals and under what conditions future Cybathlons can take place. And we’ve got plenty of new ideas too.

About Robert Riener

Robert Riener (48) is Professor for Sensory-Motor Systems and Head of the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich. He and his research group primarily study motor control in humans and its interplay with sensory responses. They use their findings to try to optimise interactions between humans and machines, for example in rehabilitation.