So how did a graduating senior double-majoring in history and political science and a team of engineering graduate students and their professor manage to grab more YouTube viewers than Denzel Washington, Conan O’Brien, the Dalai Lama, and Tom Hanks?

Therein lies an inspirational tale.

Every rare now and then something happens at a normal cyclical event like a commencement that captures people’s hearts.

It can be totally unexpected. Seven years ago, the orderly file of degree-receiving engineers across the Greek Theatre stage halted briefly when new Ph.D. Yen-Yang “Mike” Chen went down on one knee, and held up a previously-invisible sign he had stashed under his academic gown. It said, “MARRY ME, Jackey!!” His intended— after a long suspenseful pause — came out of the audience and tearfully said yes. The audience erupted in applause. The private-public moment hit the press and enjoyed a quick flash of circulation.

Back on May 14 of this year, the dramatic moment was anticipated, planned, and publicized ahead of time, but still grabbed people because of the signal it sent.

The headlines said, with variations, “Paraplegic student stands tall and walks at commencement.”

This was the action:

When graduating senior Austin Whitney stood up from his wheelchair on stage at UC Berkeley’s commencement ceremony today, the crowd of 15,000 people at Edwards Stadium stood up with him — and roared.

Then Whitney, a paraplegic since 2007, used a controller switch on a walker to direct the exoskeleton strapped around his legs to move forward toward Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who was waiting to greet him. Step by step, followed by a team of researchers and cheered on by his family, Whitney reached Birgeneau, who gave him a congratulatory hug. — UC Berkeley NewsCenter report

robotic exoskeleton helps paralyzed student walk
Out of his chair and on his feet
Austin walks across stage, waves
Austin crosses stage successfully, waves

Shortly after Whitney’s historic walk, Chancellor Birgeneau addressed all the new graduates and their witnesses, and said “Thanks to the work of Professor Homayoon Kazerooni and his team of graduate students, people with permanent mobility disorders can regain mobility. This achievement,” he continued, “embodies the public mission and indomitable spirit of Berkeley that is exemplified by our amazing students and our outstanding faculty dedicated to the advancement of knowledge for the betterment of humankind.”

the people behind Austin Whitney and the "Austin" robotic exoskeleton
TEAM AUSTIN --- the core group of mechanical engineers who made the seemingly impossible actually happen. Literally behind Austin Whitney are the people who have helped him walk: from left, graduate students Jason Reid, Minerva Pillai, Wayne Tung, Michael McKinley, lab manager Arun Joshua Cherian grad student Kyu Nam Kim, and their leader, Professor Homayoon Kazarooni. (photos: Peg Skorpinski)

YouTube and camera phones both existed back when Mike Chen popped his question, but they weren’t ubiquitous. Now they’re everywhere. The event with Austin Whitney and “the Austin,” as the exoskeleton device was named, was preceded by Berkeley-produced videos, and the commencement was covered by news videos and camera phones and camcorders in the audience, and many of them were easy to find on YouTube and Facebook.

Within YouTube, there’s a special niche called YouTube EDU, which launched in 2009 to collect and highlight the vast educational content coming out of colleges and universities, and it’s there that Denzel, Conan, and Tom lost out to Team Austin. By the first week of July, a video of Whitney walking at graduation was Number One of YouTube EDU’s Top 10 Most Viewed Videos of 2010-11, with roughly 471,000 views.

Washington gave the commencement address at Penn (345,000), ditto for O’Brien at Dartmouth (297,000), and Hanks at Yale (104,000). The Dalai Lama spoke at Stanford (118,000). Other technical achievements ranked well, too — the University of Chicago’s interestingly plorky “Universal Gripper” came in at Number Four, and Penn’s PhillieBot flooped a one-bounce first pitch at a Phillies game for the Number Eight slot.

But back in reality, here are the winners. For Project Austin, the exoskeleton device named for its first human test pilot, mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni led a team of graduate students, core members of which include Michael McKinley, Jason Reid, Wayne Tung, and Minerva Pillai, all Ph.D. students in his Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. They worked around the clock during the past year, more intensively in the few months preceding the commencement.

They deliberately kept the Austin exoskeleton simple so it could be used unsupervised for in-home situations and so it would have lower costs than others on the market, which run $100,000 and up. A target price of around $15,000 — in the motorized wheelchair range — would put it within financial reach of many people disabled by spinal injury, stroke, and other lower-body mobility disorders.

The prelude — learn more about Austin Whitney and the exoskeleton project.

The coverage was wide — CBS Sunday Morning was a good example:

Inside the machine — Ph.D. student Mike McKinley explains how the exoskeleton works:

(Video produced by Roxanne Makasdjian, UC Berkeley Media Relations)

On the cover of Forefront:

Austin Whitney on cover of Forefront Magazine
UP ON HIS FEET --- Austin Whitney in his exoskeleton on the cover of Forefront, the College of Engineering’s magazine, which contains a feature story on the people, background, and possibilities of Berkeley’s robotic exoskeleton project.

Categories: Featured in eGrad, Featured in eGrad: July 2011, Headlines

About Dick Cortén