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Meet Exo-Abs – a device to assist with breathing, speaking, and singing. Those who have experienced spinal cord injury have weak intercostal muscles and limited lung capacity, finding difficulty deep breathing and forceful exhalation. By putting pressure on a person’s midsection, Exo-Abs mimics the normal breathing process to help such individuals. The device first started being made after Kim Hyuk-gun, the Korean lead vocalist for the Cross band, was in a car accident and suffered paralysis. To combat his struggle to sing, he worked with the biorobotics lab at Seoul National University.

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The researchers experimented with different Exo-Abs prototypes, the first one requiring manual control, using a joystick and needing a nearby power outlet. The second was more advanced; it employed a backpack concept to help those who need assistance at certain times rather than all the time. Unfortunately, though, it over-applied the force needed on a person's abdomen, which can be highly dangerous. Now, Exo-Abs has reached its best version yet, integrating artificial intelligence to distribute even amounts of force. The AI regulates the pressure put on the abdomen, considering an individual’s body shape, fitness level, and activity type. Moreover, it uses a microphone to grasp whether a person is speaking or not, and an elastic tube to gauge the rate of breathing.

In the future, the researchers hope Exo-abs can replace a ventilator, hidden under a shirt with the machine tucked into a portable bag. Lee Sang-yoep, one of the researchers, believes Exo-abs’ use can extend to music syncing and puzzle games. Essentially, a song file would be downloaded and the robot calculates the beats, determining the breathing effort to sing and thus the pressure to apply on the midsection. Since singing is the most complicated extension of speaking and breathing, the beauty of this technology lies in the fact that it can strengthen existing technologies on the basic skill of breathing.

Right now, people who need respiratory therapy to clear their breathing passages can use Exo-Abs for around five hours a day (for three weeks in a row).

Fundamentally, Exo-abs helps those who struggle with breathing, whilst opening opportunities for them to engage in public speaking and performance arts. Although it is not perfect, the technology will definitely improve in efficacy and design with time.


Written by Amanda Y