Researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have introduced a new robotic suit to help Buddhist pilgrims in Japan. The suit straps to a person’s back and legs and uses six motors to aid motion. The first studies into the device took place in Shikoku, southwestern Japan, home of the the “henro” pilgrimage, which traces the footsteps of the Buddhist priest Kukai (774–835), founder of the Shingon schoo of Japanese Buddhism.
The robotic suit, dubbed the Walk Mate, was developed with funding support from All Nippon Airways. Its creator is Yoshihiro Miyake, a biophysics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. According to Miyake, the Walk Mate senses the gait and pace of the user and synchronizes its motors to assist. “When people walk with others, they unconsciously try to walk at the same pace as their companions,” Miyake said. “The same idea was incorporated into the robotic suit.” (The Asahi Shimbun)
Early tests of the six-kilogram suit are being employed in tourism-related areas such as the Shinkoku pilgrimage route, which connects some 88 temples. This route is known to be especially popular with the elderly and is famous for steep terrain and long stairways.
In a December trial, the device impressed the media. Two hikers outfitted with what looks like a metal backpack and straps around their legs, shoulders, and arms, can be seen moving effortlessly across a courtyard and up a hill. “The scene was cool and looked like something out of RoboCop,” a cameraman said. (The Asahi Shimbun)
The Walk Mate has already been used in medical centers in Japan and elsewhere to aid in physical therapy.
Asked why the Shikoku henro route was chosen as the first test site, Miyake noted the concept of dogyo ninin (two travel together). In the pilgrimage it is said that Kukai accompanies all pilgrims along the way. In the same way, Walk Mate accompanies each user throughout their journey. The ideal is that the device becomes an effortless helper along the way, much as devotees think of the spirit of Kukai, also known as Daishi.
Following her own experience with the device, a woman in her 50s who used the suit called the technology “marvelous.” She and her husband had climbed a 500-meter slope leading from there temple Mandara-ji to Shusshaka-ji, respectively the 72nd and 73rd temples along the route. “I was worried about my weak right knee, but I could walk just like healthy people do,” she said. (The Asahi Shimbun)
Another early user of the suit, a man in his 60s, also praised the new device, saying: “I could step smoothly without wheezing thanks to the power of this machinery.” (The Asahi Shimbun)
Japanese Buddhists have become known for embracing modern methods as they practice ancient traditions. Zentsu-ji, the birthplace of Kukai, has recognized the Walk Mate as an official dogyo ninin robot. Zentsu-ji’s head priest, Chijun Suga, said: “Daishi is said to dwell inside the walking sticks of pilgrims on henro. This robot is just a modern technological version of the walking stick.” (The Asahi Shimbun)
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