'Metal Gear Solid'-Inspired Prosthetic Limb Sends Email, Charges Phones

A major video game publisher, a prosthetics sculptor, and a gamer come together to redefine prosthetics.
February 21, 2016, 5:00pm
Image: Konami

To the casual observer, the 25-year-old British man walking down the streets of Austin with a seemingly metallic left arm this weekend might be a cosplayer — a fan of a Marvel Comics figures like Cable or the Winter Soldier. It matches his lanky build well, and you can occasionally catch him using it vaguely in the manner of a smartphone. But that's James Young's real, bespoke prosthetic arm. It's a kingly gift from the Japanese game studio Konami, and it's inspired by its recent blockbuster Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

We've written about Young before, but that was over three months ago, back when his unusual arm was but an unrealized concept. Now it's the real deal. It's the work of famed prosthetics sculptor Sophie de Oliveira Barata, who founded the Alternative Limb Project to create both lifelike limbs and eyecatchers like the "Spike Leg" for amputees less concerned with concealment. Young got to try his on for the first time only a few days ago. Indeed, when we spoke yesterday shortly before the limb's big reveal at Austin, Texas' BodyHacking Con, he wasn't even sure how to generalize the way people react to the arm in relation to his old, simple hook prosthesis.

The new arm is leaps and bounds better, he tells me, and not just for functionality. A trained biologist, he spoke in an earlier statement about his disappointment with the way existing standard prostheses are "assistive clinical devices and don't represent a part of one's body" — he wanted something that "reflects part of my personality."

"I think it's great that I'm using this opportunity to promote scientific advancement in the field and try to advance prosthetics by creating something so visually stimulating," he said.

His new limb may not detect tiny vibrations or unleash electrical bursts like Snake's arm (a replica of which was given out with MGSV's collector's edition), but that's hardly a disadvantage. Not only can Young form some gestures with the hand thanks to sensors from Open Bionics that detect muscle movements on his back, but he can also charge his phone with an embedded USB port and control a small, camera-equipped quadcopter drone with an interface on the forearm.

Also included is a small screen that displays his e-mail and Twitter feeds, and he can switch between a flashlight and laser as desired. Topping off the features is a line of LED lights, which changes colors on command and sometimes pulses in tune with Young's heart rate. If that sounds like a lot of stuff to cram into an arm (and one that's attached to a harness), it is.

"It's kind of a balance of comfort," he said. "It's nice enough to not need my full body power, but because it's got high-voltage batteries and stuff in, I'm not used to the additional level of weight."

Konami paid around $86,000 for his limb. Young, who lost his left arm and a leg in a 2012 London rail accident, had responded to de Oliveira's call for an amputee gamer in the UK for the Phantom Limb project, and ended up being chosen over around 60 other candidates. Young actually hadn't played much Metal Gearup until that point, but he was familiar with the series and its aesthetic. While the actual hand looks similar to Snake's and Young had toyed with the idea of having it painted black, he ultimately went with an overall toned-down style that looks less intimidating in real life.

And I couldn't help but ask — has it improved his gaming performance in any way? He says he doesn't bother.

"I've managed to click and mouse with it and move a mouse around," he says, "but I've already mastered my one-handed technique."