With 24 grips and smartphone support, new design from Touch Bionics would make even Luke Skywalker proud

Scotland-based Touch Bionics, a top prosthetics firm, has announced its third-generation robotic arm, which features smartphone support and even better control that its predecessors.

I. A Helping Hand

Early last decade, cybernetics began to catch up with science fiction and researchers began to create cybernetic prosthetic limbs.  The key was to drive the limbs with electrodes attached to the patient's remaining nerves/muscles. Patients could then learn to move the limb through its range of motion via their own nervous system's electrical impulses.

A few years ago the first of these solutions hit the market.  Today that market has become increasingly competitive with each limb packing new capabilities.  The top players include German prosthesis maker Otto Bock(makers of the "Michelangelo" hand), RSL Steeper (makers of the "BeBionic" robotic hand) and the aforementioned Touch Bionics.

Luke Skywalker
Thanks to modern electronics robotics hands have gone from sci-fi to reality.
[Image Source: LucasFilm Ltd.]

For Touch Bionics, the commercial journey began in 2007 with the launch of the i-LIMB Hand prosthetic, which offered a hand replacement with basic gripping.  In 2009 it upped the ante with i-limb Digits, which added fingers to the prosthetic hand.  In 2010 it released the i-LIMB Pulse, and in 2011 it followed up with the i-limb ultra.

Touch Bionics and its competitors' robotic hands allow users to clutch objects as a human hand would.  This requires a complex balance of force -- too little and the object slips; too much and you risk breaking things.  But Touch Bionics' advanced software has been excelling in providing this kind of precise control.

II. i-Limb Goes iPhone

Today it revealed its latest upgrade to its robotic hand -- the i-limb ultra revolution.  And perhaps fittingly, the new i-limb supports control via an app for Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone for the first time.  New features include:
  • Powered rotating thumb and individually articulating fingers offering unparalleled dexterity and reliable access to precision grip patterns.
  • New biosim mobile control application compatible with latest Apple® products gives the wearer greatly expanded control capability via 24 Quick Grips each from a single screen tap.
  • New remote electrodes offer a higher level of sensitivity giving the wearer enhanced control.
  • A variety of flexible wrist options enabling more natural positioning of hand when gripping or picking up objects.
  • Aesthetic covering options available via the livingskin product line, including i-limb skin natural and i-limb skin match covers customized to match skin tone and appearance.
The flashiest feature is clearly the app controls.  The Quick Grips offer a fast alternative to electrode-based learned movements.  And the app also includes a diagnostic toolkit to check the prosthetic for problems.

Ian Stevens, CEO of Touch Bionics brags,  "We are pleased to introduce the i-limb ultra revolution and the latest biosim mobile control app.  We believe that the i-limb ultra revolution, with powered thumb rotation and the ability to quickly access multiple grip patterns, offers unparalleled dexterity and control, enabling wearers to more easily perform activities of daily living and thus increase their quality of life."

The i-limb ultra revolution is the first upper-limb prosthetic (aka. robotic hand) to be controllable via an app.  Fans of Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android OS may be a little irked though -- at this point Touch Bionics plans only to support apps for Apple devices.

Touch Bionics
Touch Bionics' i-limb ultra revolution -- there's an app for that.

One burgeoning area of medical controversy is elective amputation: given the potential of bionic limbs, some people with damaged hands or arms are electing to amputate.

Source: Touch Bionics

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