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Former Tesla Engineer Develops Exoskeleton to Help a Friend Move Again

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In a recent story, Quartz reports on the unusual work of Sam Huynh. When she was an engineering student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Huynh stood out from the crowd. She was the child of refugees, queer, and a woman in a field dominated by men. Her relentless work ethic also attracted attention. She secured an internship at SpaceX in her early 20s and then went on to work for Tesla as a design engineer. Despite being on a conventional path to success, Huynh left her job at Tesla in 2012 to pursue something closer to her heart.

Specifically, she began designing a high-tech exoskeleton for paralyzed people. She felt inspired to shift her focus when her former RIT classmate and close friend Taylor Hattori was injured in a dirt bike accident. He was paralyzed from the chest down, but Huynh was determined to help him use his limbs again. After returning to school to earn her Master’s degree in materials engineering, she got to work designing a robotic body suit as part of her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California.

The exoskeleton is meant to allow those with paralysis to move independently. Pneumatic “muscles” powered by air pressure control the suit in an organic way that resembles how the body moves. Electrical signals from the wearer’s own muscles trigger actions; flexing the pectorals, for example, activates motion in the forearm portion of the body suit. The fancy gear is more than a way for users to get around. Huynh also intends for it to be a form of physical therapy that helps patients regain the mobility they lost.

Her design is built around the widely held theory of neuroplasticity, which states that the brain is capable of rewiring itself based on thoughts and movements. That means if part of the brain is hurt in an accident, like the part responsible for controlling arm movements, it’s possible for the brain to form new circuits that perform some of those lost functions.

Getting to that point requires diligence, and exoskeletons provide patients a way to practice on their own without solely relying on a physical therapist for help. The exoskeleton Huynh is designing at USC is still a work-in-progress, but her long-term goal is to build a device that gets wearers to the point where they no longer need to use it. “I know how much Taylor would hate to be reliant on something that wasn’t himself,” Huynh told Quartz. “I don’t want people to have to be stuck in my apparatus: I want them to use it so they can learn how to reuse their own bodies.”

Huynh is hardly the first person to think of building a suit that lets paralyzed people walk again. A concept for a “pneumatic bodyframe” controlled by electrical signals in the brain was first proposed by H. Wangenstein in 1883. Exoskeletons controlled by the wearer have since become a reality, but they can usually cost anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000. Hunyh made sure her product would be accessible to as many people as possible. In total, the materials used to construct her suit cost a few hundred dollars. Her current set-up only controls the upper limbs, but she plans to eventually design a suit for the whole body.

[h/t Quartz]

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
This Crafty Bicycle Can Knit a Scarf in 5 Minutes
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo

Knitting can be a time-consuming, meticulous task, but it doesn’t need to be. At least not if you’re George Barratt-Jones. As The Morning News spotted, the Dutch designer recently created a human-powered automated knitting machine that can make a scarf while you wait for your train to arrive.

The Cyclo-Knitter is essentially a bicycle-powered loom. As you pedal a stationary bike, the spinning front wheel powers a knitting machine placed on top of a wooden tower. The freshly knitted fabric descends from the top of the tower as the machine works, lowering your brand-new scarf.

Cyclo Knitter by George Barratt-Jones from George Barratt-Jones on Vimeo.

“Imagine it’s the midst of winter,” Barratt-Jones, who founded an online skill-sharing platform called Kraftz, writes of the product on Imgur. “You are cold and bored waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait, and in the end, you are left with a free scarf!”

Seems like a pretty good use of your commute down-time, right?

If you're a fan of more traditional knitting methods, check out these knitting projects that can put your needles to work, no bicycle required.

[h/t The Morning News]

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