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Lego-compatible prosthetic arm lets kids build their own hand

Iko is a prosthetic arm that can be fitted with Lego bricks so that wearers can take the design of their own hand into their own hands.

Dario trying out his backhoe hand. Carlos Arturo Torres

Prosthetic limbs are made more or less in the image of the limb they are replacing. But, as some people have discovered, they don't have to be.

And as Carlos Arturo Torres, formerly of the Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden and now living in Chicago, wants the world to know, they can do a lot more than just look nifty and flash LEDs. For his final project university in 2014, Torres designed Iko, a prosthetic arm for children that also acts as a platform for creative Lego projects.

The project was awarded the prize for Open Design Student in the 2015 Core77 Design Awards earlier this month.

"The needs of a kid in disability are not always related to physical activity but often alternatively the social and psychological aspect; sometimes a functional element is everything they need, but some other times it might be a spaceship, or a doll house, or a telescope, or a video game controller, or a swim fin," Torres explained on the project page on Core77. "What if kids could use their imagination to create their own prosthetics, their own tools according to their own needs? Learning. Creating. Being kids."

The arm was created in collaboration with Lego Future Lab, the toy company's research and development team, and CIREC, a foundation for physical rehabilitation. It has a detachable, articulated robotic hand that makes Iko a fully functional prosthetic. This is controlled using myoelectric sensors, which read the electrical signals that travel along the wearer's muscles.

The arm is also a fully functional robotic prosthetic. Carlos Arturo Torres

The middle of the prosthetic houses a processing unit and an engine compatible with Lego Mindstorms, the toy company's robotics line. The outside of the arm has several Lego tubes where Lego parts can be attached, and a tube is also placed at the tip of each finger. This means not only can the wearers build cool Lego things -- they can build cool robotic Lego things.

The prototype was tested by a boy named Dario, who was able to control a Lego backhoe, an LED on a spaceship, and Lego grippers attached to his arm using the myoelectric sensors.

Iko was designed so that children could collaborate and bond over it, rather than feel isolated and different because of a prosthetic.

"There were many problems I was trying to understand; the bad perception that kids have around prosthetics, the deep focus that companies have on engineering and not the human part of a kid in disability, the social isolation of a kid because of his condition and how hard can be for them to build a strong self-esteem," Torres said.

"My idea was not to make a traditional prosthetic, but to propose a system that was flexible enough for kids to use, hack and create with by themselves and with their friends."