As engineers make strides in the design of wearable, electronically active, and responsive leg braces, arm supports, and full-body suits, collectively known as exoskeletons, researchers at MIT are raising an important question: While these Iron Man-like appendages may amp up a person's strength, mobility, and endurance, what effect might they have on attention and decision making? The question is far from trivial, as exoskeletons are currently being designed and tested for use on the battlefield, where U.S. soldiers are expected to perform focused tactical maneuvers while typically carrying 60 to 100 pounds of equipment. Exoskeletons such as electronically adaptive hip, knee, and leg braces could bear a significant portion of a soldier's load, freeing them up to move faster and with more agility. But could wearing such bionic add-ons, and adjusting to their movements, take away some of the attention needed for cognitive tasks, such as spotting an enemy, relaying a message, or following a squadron? The answer, the MIT team found, is yes, at least in some scenarios. In a study that they are presenting this week at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, the researchers tested volunteers, who were either active-duty members of the military or participants in a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) unit, as they marched through an obstacle course while wearing a commercially available knee exoskeleton and carrying a backpack weighing up to 80 pounds. Seven of the 12 subjects had slower reaction times in a visual task when they completed the course with the exoskeleton on and powered, compared to when they finished it without the exoskeleton. The researchers also found that the soldiers, when asked to follow a leader at a certain distance, were less able to keep a constant distance while wearing the exoskeleton. The results, though preliminary, suggest that engineers designing exoskeletons for military and other uses may want to consider a device's "cognitive fit"—how much of a user's attention or decision making the device could potentially divert even while assisting them physically. "In a military exoskeleton, soldiers are supposed to be scanning for enemies in the environment, making sure where other people in their squad are, monitoring a whole variety of things," says Leia Stirling, an assistant professor in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. "You don't want them to have to focus on how they're stepping because of the exoskeleton. That's why I was interested in how much attention these technologies require."
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