Developing assistive Technologies with Anni Kern


Welcome to one more episode of Builder Nation, today we will have the pleasure to speak with Anni Kern, Head of Communication, Strategy, and teams at CYBATHLON, the championship that allows people with physical disabilities to compete against each other in everyday tasks using assistive technologies. 


Elisa Muñoz: Please introduce yourself Annie. We want to hear your story and how did you first get into this field?

Anni Kern: Yes, my name is Annie. I'm from Germany. I moved to Switzerland 17 years ago. And I started working for Cybathlon in January, 2016. I worked for a company manufacturing robotic rehabilitation systems. So that's how I came to the cyber club because we are a university project of the Swiss federal Institute of Technology. And they worked together with them, this company. So I started at Cybathlon and it's a wonderful job. I love it.

I'm not an engineer. I have an economics background and a bit of an events and tourism background. And I worked in the marketing department for this robotics company. And so I already knew a little bit about people with disabilities or accidents and what they need. Also, about  their stories and how difficult it is to research and develop low cost robotics for, for people in everyday life and what kind of challenges they have.

Elisa Muñoz: I was wondering how many disciplines you have because it's every four years, right? So every four years, every CYBATHLON that you have, do you implement another discipline?

Or how many teams do you have, how many people?

Anni Kern:So in, in 2016, and in 2020, we had six disciplines and these were the same ones. So we have the brain computer interface, race, functional, electrical stimulation, bike, race, TCIs race, electricity's race. We share an exoskeleton race. And for every Cybathlon or we call it Cybertron period, it's a four years period. We create new races and rule books. And this is especially for the research team. So every task and every movement in this race in Ruth's book is developed so that we push the development of the devices. 

After 2020, we introduced two new disciplines. So we evaluated the disciplines of how we can make a competition out of it. It's not very clear how you can compare different teams. This is not very easy, but we came up with two new disciplines. We have the assistance robot race. So this is for people with severe impairments of the upper limbs. So maybe you, you don't have any arms anymore. You can't move them. And we have created a park for that little robots or a robot that is Mount to the, so that the wheelchair can help them in everyday life. And the other discipline, a new discipline is new for us as well because it's the vision, eight races, it's four for blind people.

We think that out there, there is a lot of technology in art in smartphones or, or classes that can be more improved for daily life. So we have this one.

And then in 2016, we had 66 teams from all over the world. And in 2024, the main event, we, we had 96 teams. So we were fully booked, but then we had to change plans because of the pandemic. We, we, we created a new event format, it's a decentralized event. So we asked all teams to, to set up the park or at their home country or their home institution. And we all did put that together in, in two live streams. And then we had a competition like that.

Elisa Muñoz:  You mentioned the leg persistence race, and what kind of task do the pilots have to do in order to compete for this specific race?

Anni Kern: So one, one task is for example, that most of the leg press TCIs people are not going those attorneys steps. You know? So they used to go up the stairs like this? So they have one like that. So this is not very healthy, as you can imagine. And so the pilots have to go up the stairs, like if, if they had normal legs. And this is very challenging because you have to rebuild the knee and the knee has certain functions, then you have to, to, to stabilize the person when the person is only on one leg. And then normally they have to carry things to make it more difficult so that they don't focus on the, on the, on the steps, but focus on other things that they don't think about how they move that they do it more naturally.

Elisa Muñoz:  And now that we're talking about this, I wasn't asking you since this technology is kind of new, you know, for most of the world, like, are there any ways in order to guarantee the safety of the pilot?

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Anni Kern:  Yeah. So the teams need to hand in a very detailed, detailed tech check and protocol and the risk of analyzing this document. And then we have the so-called head of disciplines. They are from universities and from our university and other universities in Switzerland. And they do the first review of this tech check document and the risk analysis. So where is the emergency button and things like that? And then they, we have two other reviewers also from, from, from the peers and experts and yeah, PhD students or professors reviewing the Tectrick protocol. And then they are approved to attend the onsite tactic. So we, they, the pilot has to go over the whole park floor and we have to check if, if the device is safe, if he, he, or she can do the certain tasks, if they cannot solve the tasks safely, or if we have the feeling, they cannot say salted, say, if he did, they are not allowed to do it.

Elisa Muñoz: What about these products or these technologies? Are they available on the market?

Anni Kern: Yeah, I mean, it depends on the discipline. So we have the wheelchair discipline. You can buy it now. They are like motorized witches. They can go up and down the stairs.

We have an ETH team or ETH for my ETH student team that participated in 2016 and 2020. They have the skill level. It's a very nice wheelchair. They have a company now that is really successful, I think, in Europe so far. And then Lac, prestigious, you have European companies like auto book. They are having very good arm and leg press TCIs or sewer. So they participate in the cyber club competitions and also benefit from, from, pushing or from the races and routes that they develop their devices further. Yeah. But you have like the brain computer interface race. This is very  in the beginning, yeah. It's very research and you cannot, you cannot use it or, or it's not commercially available, but yeah, it will be maybe in 20 or 30. 

Elisa Muñoz: And I think the next Cybathlon or in the next, hopefully, and I know, I mean, I'm pretty sure that it takes a lot of time. I mean, not only the research, but also the preparation and also their organization that you guys have to do!  The team, the communications, the researchers, you know, deck people. So it's understood that, have you had any personal experience or any personal feedback from these specific projects that you were like, wow, this is really, I don't know, these really fulfilling.

Anni Kern: Yeah. So it is very, very fulfilling because what we are doing is still unique. So you don't, it's not comparable to anything you can experience. So, I mean, we've been working very closely with the teams and meeting them, seeing them, and especially the pilots, how ambitious they are, how nervous they are, how competitive they are. It's very, very fulfilling for me to see this. And, you know, it's, it's, you have all those, those people that are having disability and maybe they have not that much, or they have their, their, their life. And they have a lot of challenges to overcome.

And it's all very positive in that cyber phone. It's a competition for them and they can meet other people. They can meet people from other countries, they can meet in exchange about their lives and have a fancy press TCIs. And it's showing the needs of people with disabilities in a good way, in a competent way, in a fascinating way, I think. And we always try to, to, to get this to people that are not familiar with all this kind of topics, and this is something that is very fulfilling because it has a very positive movement for, for all people involved, I think.

Elisa Muñoz:  And how do you think we can create awareness? 

Anni Kern: Inclusion is often a word for, for, for inclusion of people with disabilities, but I think it's, it's more about including a kind  of people and you have a majority and a minority and the minority wants to be included. So they are not really the problem for inclusion. Of course, you have to observe certain social routes. But so if, if we have to change our willingness to include people, and if, if the society does know or is not aware, or doesn't see the positive effects or the benefits for themselves, it's very hard to get a single person to include any kind of, of people. 

So I think we have to, to tell people about the benefits of a diverse society or of including different kinds of peoples and what, what the benefit is for them and what the benefit is for, for the society as a whole, not only socially, but financially and, and other aspects of, of, of this, of this topic. And I think as, as, as much as we talk about it and so, and, and show the positiveness of it, I think hopefully someday it will happen and change and you have to, to inform people and educate people and tell people.

And I think you can then create change in change in mind. And you have to, to remove this, this anxious, anxious, yeah. There's anxiety. You have to remove the barriers so that it's not, not bad. This person is not dangerous or, or you don't, you don't make anything wrong talking to that person. So, yeah.

Elisa Muñoz: Do you have any last advice for the students or researchers who are working in the field or want to take one step further into assistive technology?

Anni Kern: Yeah, I mean, just start. And what I think is to listen to the people needing the technology. I think if you are a researcher and developer and you are developing something for a human being, then listen to the people, needing it and to get feedback, involve them in your process. Try not to make the most fancy technology but the usable technology, maybe low cost so that people can afford it. And I think be innovative, have visions and be positive. 

Elisa Muñoz:Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us Anni, it was a pleasure!

Anni Kern: For sure, I hope to see you again sometime!

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