Roland Sigrist: How CYBATHLON is helping shape the future of assistive technology and inclusion
CYBATHLON events challenge and inspire teams to build assistive technologies with real-world applications that can change the lives of people with disabilities. CYBATHLON Co-Head Roland Sigrist, who is responsible for the competition, parts of the broadcasting, partnerships and more, tells us what it takes to put on CYBATHLON and how it became more inclusive.
There must be a lot to consider when putting on a CYBATHLON event. How do you do it?
When we design tasks for the CYBATHLON competition we have to consider many aspects.
We talk to the end users and ask them: what functionality do you need so that your assistive device will function in daily life?
We talk to the engineers and ask them: where can you go with the technology in the next few months or years? Can you develop new features that people with disabilities can use in daily life?
We also talk with the teams that have already participated in CYBATHLON competitions. So it's really a community that supports us in developing the new CYBATHLON tasks every four years.
Can you give us an example, and perhaps one that shows how these tasks might change from one CYBATHLON to the next?
In 2015 at the very first CYBATHLON rehearsal we had straight edge stairs as an obstacle for the wheelchair teams. At that time only one team could solve this task.
By 2020, 90% of teams could complete the task. So we started thinking of a new challenge and came up with winding stairs. We asked the community if they thought they would be able to do this in 2024. Some said yes, some said yes, but it will be a challenge.
So in the CYBATHLON 2024 wheelchair competition we will not only have the straight stairs, which many teams already can do, we will also have winding stairs, where new technology is required to solve the tasks.
What have you learned about how to put on the CYBATHLON events over the years?
The biggest learning is that in 2020 the pandemic showed us that it cannot just be an event hosted locally. In fact, the competition can only be inclusive if people around the world can join in.
So, we came up with a new idea of a multi-hub event. Teams can travel from all over the world to CYBATHLON 2024 and compete in the arena in Zurich if they wish. Those who cannot or do not want to travel or prefer to create their own hub can do so.
Seeing a team in Japan doing these tasks via live link in 2020 was probably the best moment of my time working for CYBATHLON because it made me realise we could do remote events and build a more inclusive event with teams from all over the world.
How do you make sure it is a fair competition for everyone, whether in the arena in Zurich or at their own hub?
We recruit CYBATHLON volunteer officials in each location around the world and educate them to properly judge the races. We instruct the teams how to film their own competition. Our broadcaster then brings all these feeds together and puts TV graphics on top of everything.
Our self-made scoring app is used at our CYBATHLON competitions and we get the data from all the hubs to make the rankings.
The technical specifications for each task have to be exact, from the height of a step to the distance someone has to carry an object after picking it up. What can you tell us about that?
Our race rules very clearly define how a race has to be set up. Every racetrack around the world at each hub is standardised. The hub managers have to set up the racetracks and each obstacle according to our rules.
It involves a lot of precise communication but we try to make the preparation as easy as possible so teams around the world can join in.
How is assistive device and accessibility research helping to inform and shape CYBATHLON?
We study the latest research publications in the field of assistive technologies and talk to the researchers. It also makes the competition very valuable for the researchers themselves because we ask them about the tasks we want to set up. The research community really appreciates this because they are aware of the current state-of-the-art technology that we could include.
What would you say to any teams thinking about signing up? Why should they do it?
Any team should join CYBATHLON because it is an experience for the whole team; the end user (i.e. the pilot), the engineers, and those who do the training with the pilots to finally reach the goal of competing at CYBATHLON. To be part of the community and do this competition not only against each other but also go on the journey together with the other teams is a really exciting thing to do.