Star Wars and fashion intersected in London last week at a star studded event themed “Fashion Finds the Force.” Open Bionics, a robotics company that creates low-cost bionic hands for all ages, debuted a 3D printed Star Wars themed prosthetic arm at the event, which was auctioned off for charity, along with 20 other items.
A recurring theme in the Star Wars movies is that many characters invariably lose an arm. Anakin, for instance, loses his arm in Episode II: Attack of the Clones, before losing nearly all his limbs in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith upon descending into Darth Vader. And in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader severs Luke Skywalker’s arm upon revealing to the young Jedi that he is his father. Luke can be seen sporting a new bionic arm at the end of the movie.
Luke’s bionic arm was chalked up to the world of science fiction along with light sabers and tractor beams. In recent years, however, technology portrayed in the Star Wars franchise has been melding into reality. According to Open Bionics, they can now print a custom fitted 3-D prosthetic forearm and hand in 48 hours. Even more remarkable, the prosthetic arm costs just over $3,000, which is only a tenth of the price of many other products on the market.
Restoring balance to the forearm
Open Bionics debuted their special 3D printed arm as part of the ‘Fashion Finds the Force’ themed fashion show in light of the new Star Wars movie, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which will air in theaters in just a few weeks. The 3D printed arm was part of a jumpsuit, which had 10,000 Swarovski crystals sewn into it. The jumpsuit was intended to mirror the “jump to hyperspace” scenes when Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon spaceship travels quicker than the speed of light.(1)
“Culturally the Star Wars films have had such a big cultural impact, from art through to fashion,” explained head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion, Matthew Drinkwater.(1)
“So we thought: How could we reboot that? We wanted to put together something that shows the very best of the new talent in the country but also looks really relevant for today to reflect the fact this film is about a new generation.”(1)
But why is the 3D prosthetic limb so much cheaper than its potential competitors? To begin with, the Open Bionics prosthetic device was an outgrowth of the Indiegogo crowdfunding project; an open source initiative dedicated to making robotic prosthetic hands accessible to amputees. The project raised $68,428 in its first month, and was funded by more than 1,000 supporters.(2,3)
The prosthetic hand uses myoelectric signals to detect muscle movement beneath the skin. By detecting flexing muscles in the forearm, the device is capable of opening and closing the grip of the hand. The technology isn’t capable of sentience yet, but the sensors do recognize the muscle movement to move the hand.
When science barrows from science fiction
The 3D printed arm isn’t just a handy (forgive the pun) fashion accessory, or a staple of the Star Wars franchise. It offers hope to young amputees in desperate need of an affordable prosthetic. The device was modeled by Grace Mandeville, who lacks a forearm. Other prosthetic arms cost anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000.(4)
“The hand has individual finger movements,” Joel Gibbard, CEO of Open Bionics, told sources. “You can point and pinch and move each one independently from each other to make different grip patterns. As Grace Mandeville doesn’t have a forearm, we placed myoelectric sensors on her deltoid muscles on her shoulders to control it.”(1)
The current 3D printed arm is a prototype, but Gibbard is optimistic that the device will be on the market within a year. In October, Open Bionics released three other prosthetic devices modeled after child-oriented movies including Frozen, Iron Man and, of course, Star Wars.