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Prosthetics designers are coming up with new ways to help people feel more comfortable in their own skin.
Many mornings, Dani Clode wakes up, straps a robotic thumb to one of her hands, and gets to work, poring through reams of neuroscience data, sketching ideas for new prosthetic devices, and thinking about ways to augment the human body. Clode works as a specialist at the University of Cambridge’s Plasticity Lab, which studies the neuroscience of assistive devices.
But she also creates prosthetics, ones that often fall outside the conventional bounds of functionality and aesthetics. Her designs include a clear acrylic forearm prosthetic with an internal metronome that beats in sync with the wearer’s heart and an arm made with rearrangeable sections of resin, polished wood, moss, bronze, gold, rhodium, and cork.
Clode’s current project, one that is also helping her get work done, is a “third thumb” that anyone can use to augment their grip. The flexible device is powered by motors and controlled using pressure sensors in the wearer’s shoes. Volunteers have learned to use it to unscrew a bottle, drink tea, and even play guitar. She hopes that one day the thumb (and devices like it) might help everyone from factory workers to surgeons perform tasks more efficiently, with less strain on their own bodies.
Traditionally, prosthetics designers have looked to the human body for inspiration. Prosthetics were seen as replacements for missing body parts; hyperrealistic bionic legs and arms were the holy grail. Thanks to sci-fi franchises like Star Wars, such devices still have a vise grip on our collective imagination. For better or worse, they’ve shaped how most people conceive of the future of prosthetics.