Opinions & Editorials

Powered Exoskeletons Win Big at the 2023 Oscars

Yesterday was the 95th Academy Awards, and it was a good night for the representation of powered exoskeletons on movie screens. Out of the ten films nominated for the best picture category, not one but two of them featured powered exoskeletons. The two nominees were Avatar: The Way of Water, and the winner for best picture, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Why are Representations of Exos in Movies Important?

While exoskeleton technology is more than 100 years old, it is still an emerging field. Potential users, investors, regulators, and the general public look to science fiction both for inspiration and visualization of what powered wearables can do for them. This can come in the form of science fiction novels, such as Star Ship Troopers (written in 1959 by Robert A. Heinlein), or movies like Iron Man (released in 2008). Until such time as the exoskeleton industry matures and more educational material reaches people on what the technology can realistically do and can’t do, how wearables are perceived is closely attached to how they are represented in the entertainment media. As Amy Peck, founder, and CEO of EndeavorVR, presented at her ErgoX 2022 keynote presentation: “What haven’t we imagined? We shouldn’t surrender envisioning our future to Hollywood and science fiction writers.”

Powered Exoskeleton in Everything Everywhere All at Once

The powered exoskeleton in the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once is a positive representation of assistive technology. Without revealing any major plot points, the wearable device briefly appears at the film’s climax. It empowers one of the supporting characters, who is wheelchair-bound but very active in moving the plot, to get up and physically influence events. The powered exoskeleton is somehow both clumsy and futuristic, but it does something useful for the character wearing it. The purpose and usability were prioritized over the look and visual aesthetics. Unfortunately, we are still some time away from technology like that. Still, devices like the REX by Rex Bionics and Atlante X by Wandercraft are starting to approach that level of sophistication and usability.

Exoskeletons in Avatar 2

Avatar: The Way of Water | Official Trailer
Screen Capture from Avatar: The Way of Water, Official Trailer

The representation of powered exoskeletons in Avatar: The Way of Water is neutral, if not slightly negative. That doesn’t appear to be by design; however, in the theatrical cut of the movie (word has it that there will be an extended edition with more than three hours of additional footage), the powered exoskeletons end up doing nothing useful. Visually, the science fiction devices Hollywood envisioned are a mix of full-body industrial exoskeletons, like the Guardian XO by Sarcos and a man amplifier by Skeletonics. In the film, we see one user drink coffee out of a regular coffee cup using the device, a feat they could have surely done without it, and that is about it. The exoskeletons are there for the rest of the film, but they never seem to do anything that another character couldn’t have done without them. The devices look beautiful to behold, but unfortunately, the fantastic visuals superseded any practical function.

In conclusion, powered exoskeletons were a big winner in the 95th Academy Awards, with 20% of the nominees for the best picture category featuring the technology. The winning film itself positively represented assistive wearable robotics empowering its users. Without a doubt, for the foreseeable future, the science fiction representation of the technology will have a significant influence on the exoskeleton industry.

Screengrab from the trailer of Avatar: The Way of Water, produced by Lightstorm Entertainment and released on December 16, 2022, is used for illustrative purposes of the representation of exoskeleton technology in the movie only. This screengrab is used under fair use guidelines.

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