Data from Google Trends paints a neutral picture of the current state and perception of the exoskeleton industry. The data suggests that those interested in exoskeleton devices could be in an echo chamber or alternatively, the number of people who develop an interest in the topic is about the same as those who lose it. Google Trends is a free tool that shows the normalized value of searches on Google for specific terms or phrases. The tool can be used to show trends and engagement by the general public on a number of topics.
How does Google Trends Work?
Google Trends assigns a percent value to a search term or topic. When the term was most popular, it will be at 100%, and at any other time the popularity of the term is measured as a percentage of its peak. For the purposes of the exoskeleton industry, Google Trends can reveal the search behavior of the general public on the internet in two easy to perceive ways: temporary spikes in interest and permanent change in popularity of a subject. The popular Star Wars movie franchise can be used to illustrate both temporary spikes in interest on a topic and a permanent step-change:
Sudden Spikes in Interest:
What you can see from the above chart is that people all over the world searched for “Star Wars” far more than usual at the times of release of each of the new movies (with the exception of the stand-alone Han Solo movie).
Permanent Changes in Search Behavior:
The book character Grand Admiral Thrawn has been a popular staple of the Star Wars universe since the early 90s. The fictional character, however, was introduced to a new generation of fans after it was announced that he will be added to the Star Wars Rebels animated series in July 2016. The character has continued to enjoy more searches on Google since then.
A more technical example of seeing changes in internet search behavior can be made using terms like Bitcoin, 3D printing, additive manufacturing, cryptocurrency, virtual reality, blockchain, and smartwatch.
In the example above we can see that “3D printing” also went through a step-function in search popularity. At the same time the more technical term “additive manufacturing” is slowly but steadily being used more often in internet searches on the Google platform.
The Exoskeleton Industry on Google Trends:
The term “exoskeleton” shows a single step function in the increase in popularity around 2016. After that, the number of searches for the term has remained mostly flat. The same single step function is visible for many of the similar terms (like exosuit) and companies with unique names. Some exceptions are “cobot” which is gaining popularity but is significantly less popular than “exoskeleton.” Another exception is “powered armor” which tracks perfectly with the releases of the popular Fallout computer game series which introduced the concept for players to collect parts and build their own powered armored suit.
This data offers a mixed bag representation of the exoskeleton industry. On the one hand, the term “exoskeleton” is popular and increased in popularity in 2016. On the other hand, the number of searches for the term and related terms in the United States and around the world is flat; neither growing nor shrinking. Note that this isn’t necessarily a “bad” view of the exoskeleton industry as there are many examples of search terms that were popular on Google but interest has fizzled (i.e. “3D glasses”). Still, this is odd considering there are more exoskeleton developers (see our directory) and more papers on the subject than ever before (see below).
Combining the facts that there are more exoskeleton companies and exoskeleton papers than ever before while the number of Google searches has remained flat over that last four years leads to two possible hypotheses. The exoskeleton industry is in an echo-chamber or the number of people interested in this technology is decreasing at the same rate as it is increasing.
The lack of new engagement on Google Trends can also have a negative impact on the financials of publically traded exoskeleton companies. Over the last year, publically owned exoskeleton companies would make significant announcements only to see their share value slowly erode after the initial lift. Below are some examples that were taken at random:
ReWalk Robotics [NASDAQ:RWLK] in May and June of 2019 announced that the new ReStore Exo-Suit for stroke rehabilitation received a CE Mark and FDA clearance. The ReStore could now be sold to rehabilitation facilities in both the EU and the U.S. and it could qualify for already existing insurance codes. Arguably, this was significant news. How did the stock value of ReWalk perform? In just two and a half months the stock value erased all gains from the two positive developments.
Ekso Bionics [NASDAQ:EKSO] went through something similar, with the company stock value decreasing even with a press release of a new upper body device and an upgrade to the Ekso GT.
It is possible that press releases are not reaching a wide enough audience to have the desired impact.
This is Not Anything New
The exoskeleton industry being a virtual unknown to the vast majority of the general public isn’t anything new. Conferences (like WearRA, ErgoX, ExoBerlin, and WeRob), associations, standards writing bodies, webinars, books, educational materials and coordinated outreach have always been important. The data suggests, however, that more coordination and investment may be required for outreach efforts to engage a larger portion of the population.
An Introduction to the Special Issue on Occupational Exoskeletons, Journal, IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors. Jan 10, 2020, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/24725838.2019.1709695
FDA Issues Clearance for the ReStore™ Exo-Suit, the First Soft Robotic System for Stroke Therapy, Press Release, ReWalk Robotics, Jun 4, 2019, https://rewalk.com/fda-issues-clearance-for-the-restore-exo-suit-the-first-soft-robotic-system-for-stroke-therapy/
ReWalk Robotics Receives CE Mark for ReStore™ Exo-Suit Stroke Rehabilitation Device, Press Release, ReWalk Robotics, May 29, 2019, https://rewalk.com/rewalk-robotics-receives-ce-mark-restoretm-exo-suit-stroke/
Ekso Bionics® Unveils the Next Generation Exoskeleton for Neurorehabilitation, Globe Newswire, Ekso Bionics, Aug 15, 2019, https://ir.eksobionics.com/press-releases/detail/668/ekso-bionics-unveils-the-next-generation-exoskeleton-for
Ekso Bionics® Expands Its Medical Portfolio with Upper Body Exoskeleton for Rehabilitation, Globe Newswire, July 24, 2019, https://ir.eksobionics.com/press-releases/detail/665/ekso-bionics-expands-its-medical-portfolio-with-upper