Off to the side of the crowded booth sat a spherical display featuring a trio of prototype exoskeletons Hyundai is hoping to get into the market soon. Each of the devices offered a different functionality — aiding in industrial work, helping to carry elderly people and giving paraplegics the chance to walk again.
"A car is one kind of mobility device," says Jung Kyungmo, senior research engineer on the Human Factors and Devices Research team at Hyundai. "Exoskeletons [are] another kind of mobility device we think, so we developed [this]."
Hyundai's not the first to create an exoskeleton, of course, but it's approaching the field much like it did with the auto industry: with an eye toward making them more accessible and affordable to a larger audience.
It's likely going to be some time before they're available commercially, however. Kyungmo says all of the devices that were being shown and demoed at CES were prototypes, and they've just started doing clinical trials with the goal of getting FDA certification in the United States (and the corresponding medical certification in Korea). At present, it doesn't expect to achieve that goal before 2018. And even once that milestone is achieved, the product will face a slow consumer rollout.
The H-MEX (Hyundai Medical Exoskeleton), designed for paraplegics, was the first exoskeleton born from the company's R&D labs. That device not only allows people paralyzed below the waist to take steps but also improves blood circulation among patients. Additionally, says Kyungmo, the exoskeleton can be used in rehabilitation for patients with spinal injuries that have not resulted in permanent paralysis.
To the outward observer, the H-MEX resembles old-style leg braces (think about what a young Forrest Gump wore in the 1994 Academy Award-winning film) with a bulky battery pack nestled in the small of the user's back. Leg lengths on the exoskeleton are adjustable to fit any user.
The aluminum frame that straps to your feet, legs and back with hinges on the knee and waist has a backpack with a lithium battery that operates for up to four hours. Carbon fiber walking canes feature controls that move each leg forward, instruct the device to sit down, and tell it to climb stairs.
Hurdles lie ahead
They're used in conjunction with crutches that feature controls that move each leg forward, instruct the device to sit down and tell it to climb stairs. Encouraged by H-MEX, the company then developed H-WEX (Hyundai Waist Exoskeleton), designed to make it easier for workers who work in factories.
"The robot gives them additional back support. ... It can help the worker ... to lift the heavy object," says Kyungmo.
Following that was HUMA (Hyundai Universal Mobility Assist), which was designed to carry the elderly and could have potential military applications.
Beyond the FDA clearance, there are a few issues to note about H-MEX. It's not for everyone. Users must be no shorter than 5 feet 4 inches tall, for example. The cost is still not announced.
Hyundai's not alone in the exoskeleton world. Rex Bionics, based in London, also has a device for paraplegics, though that is not yet for sale in the United States, in part because it has not been registered with the FDA. Publicly traded ReWalk (RWLK) does sell exoskeletons domestically, however — and was the first company to receive FDA clearance to use them for personal and rehabilitative use in the United States. The company's ReWalk Personal 6.0 has a list price of $77,000.
While Hyundai won't even speculate on prices at this time, it says it hopes to make the H-MEX more affordable than existing exoskeletons, since it already has factories capable of mass-producing other sorts of mobility devices.
— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com