Roger Gassert: How CYBATHLON helps create a more accessible world
Assistive devices are important for accessibility in everything from work to shopping or even to viewing an event in-person or online. That’s why CYBATHLON is an event that is accessible for everyone. CYBATHLON Vice-President Roger Gassert is a professor of rehabilitation engineering in the Department of Health Science and Technology at ETH Zürich. He also serves on the board of Access for All. Roger talks to us about how his passion for accessibility has helped shape CYBATHLON.
Welcome Professor Gassert. I understand you’ve been at CYBATHLON from the beginning. How did you get involved?
I remember Robert [Riener] often talking about this competition at the Willis Tower in Chicago, where a participant ran up to the top wearing a leg prosthesis, and how he was thinking about creating a competition related to assistive technology. Then, suddenly, he had the mock-up of a stadium in his lab. When I saw that it really caught my interest.
You are Vice-President on the Strategic Board of CYBATHLON. How would you describe your role?
Something that has always been very important to me is accessibility, and my goal has been to make CYBATHLON as accessible as possible. This is an event with people with disabilities, and it should also be an event for people with disabilities.
For example, I pushed from the beginning to make sure the website is accessible, that blind people can access the content with their screen reader.
I also contributed to setting up a student team that went all the way from developing an exoskeleton and training pilots to then participating at the actual event. I was also involved in setting up a scientific program to accompany the CYBATHLON with presentations on the six original disciplines.
These were the CYBATHLON symposia in 2016 and 2020? Could you share a bit about how they have benefited the scientific community and the teams at CYBATHLON?
The goal before the first competition in 2016 was to inform the public about CYBATHLON. We had talks from people who were going to participate in the main event and showed what groups were doing with state-of-the art technology at the time.
In 2020, we were able to go back to teams that successfully participated in the first CYBATHLON to share a bit of their journey; the preparation that went into selecting and training the pilot and the insights they gained from this.
That helped other groups get a feeling of how much investment and effort it takes - it is a big commitment to set up a team and prepare for such an event, but I think it showed other teams that it is possible.
Also, our publications are usually very scientific. So we also followed up on the first CYBATHLON symposium with a special issue in a journal in our field where a lot of people wrote about their insights from training and participating in the CYBATHLON. These things are usually not shared with the community, but they bring out the human experience.
I don't have any direct evidence for this but I hope that it inspired more people to create teams and participate.
Going back to your passion for accessibility, how does that feed into your role at CYBATHLON?
So the whole event is embedded in an environment where we are exploring all the possibilities to make it accessible to everyone.
A lot of information today comes from the internet or from apps on our smartphones, which can easily be made accessible for people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, many people are not aware of how this can be implemented. That’s why accessibility is very important for CYBATHLON, because we also have a role to provide an example here.
At CYBATHLON, we’ve pushed this way beyond just website and app accessibility features. All the events have sign language interpreters, including the CYBATHLON symposium. And we've recently been discussing how to feature auditory descriptions at the next event.
Also, during the pandemic we had to do the competition remotely, but doing that made the whole competition more accessible. Teams that might not have the financial means to come to Zurich can participate and everything comes together on a livestream that is also viewed by the audience.
How do you see CYBATHLON continuing to evolve and create an impact in the field of assistive technology?
We still need to further push towards daily applicability of assistive technologies and CYBATHLON is doing a very good job. The tasks get more complex, becoming closer to reality.
It is also very important that we've added two additional disciplines. One is the navigation race for people with visual impairments, and another one for wheelchair users with assistive robot devices to achieve more tasks in daily life.
By increasing the complexity of the individual challenges and adding new disciplines we will widen the impact this has on the field overall.
What advice would you give to any scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs who are looking to make any meaningful impact in the field of assistive technology?
To make an impact in the field of assistive technology, the most important part is not the technology itself but understanding the needs of the users.
And this is where I think CYBATHLON gave a really exciting push to the community; to get developments out of the lab and force the researchers to apply them in scenarios that are close to challenges of daily living.
You can discover more about CYBATHLON’s scientific publications here.