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The Next Old Thing

Illustration Spur Design

Corbis (Lee); courtesy of Ekso Bionics (exoskeleton)

Corbis (Lee); courtesy of Ekso Bionics (exoskeleton)

The Technology: Exoskeletons
The Product: Ekso Bionics
The Forebear: Stan Lee

Of all the characters comic book legend Stan Lee brought to the world, Iron Man is not the most impressive. While other Lee creations could stretch their bodies, burst into flames, become invisible, control minds or shoot laser beams from their eyes, Iron Man had little more than a souped-up suit and a good line in ironic banter. Also, there’s a distinct possibility that, very soon, this not-so-super hero’s powers will be available to even the most cash-strapped nemesis.

We already have robotic exoskeletons to help people with disabilities regain movement, but there are several firms now looking to exploit a more general market. It’s not entirely inconceivable that, with one of these wearable robots cladding your otherwise unremarkable physique, you could respond to your neighbor parking his Lexus in front of your driveway by simply tossing the car onto his lawn.

Okay, maybe not that. But progress is being made. Japan’s Kobayashi Lab recently launched a Muscle Suit for nurses to wear to lift patients, while U.S. defense tech firm Lockheed Martin has developed an exoskeleton that allows soldiers to squat, march and leap over rough terrain while carrying 200 pounds of gear.

Then there’s California’s Ekso Bionics, an outfit whose exoskeletons have already enabled people with spinal cord injuries to walk, and which raised $20 million in a January IPO as it continues to work toward “augmenting human capabilities” for a range of functions.

While the military is the most obvious outlet for these suits, Ekso Bionics is exploring kinder, gentler applications. People working in warehouses could pick up very large boxes, for instance. Firefighters could climb up to third-floor windows. “The technology exists,” says company spokesperson Allison Sojka.  

But what about ordinary guys who, you know, just want to be big and strong? “Well,” Sojka says, her tone suggesting that she’s heard this one before, “prices are falling.” 

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