What Life Is Like with a Robotic Arm
My bionic arm is a great conversation starter with women—it's like you're always carrying around a puppy.
Photo by VICE Media
This article originally appeared on VICE Austria.
When I was 15 years old, my lower right arm was amputated after I was hit by a passing train. For a while, I used a fairly standard myoelectric-controlled prosthetic arm—a device that senses tiny nerve signals in your muscles, which control the arm movement of the prosthetic. Apart from putting forward my left hand instead of the right when greeting someone, I never consciously hid my disability. But thanks to the prosthetic's beige-pink appearance, it never really stood out at first glance. The classmates in high school to whom I hadn't told what had happened didn't notice for months that I was using a prosthetic arm. Once, I even had an impromptu sexual encounter with a girl in a narrow train carriage—she wasn't aware that I was wearing a prosthetic arm at all.
Because my accident happened when I was still pretty young, by the time I was 30, I was used to what I had. I never thought about how prosthetics might have evolved over the years. So, when a friendly orthopedic technician explained to me just how far the technology had come, I started considering an upgrade.
That upgrade came in the form of a bionic arm. I first tested a prototype called "Michelangelo" for a week. It was much more powerful, and more intuitive than what I was used to. The bionic arm has 14 different grip patterns, while my previous prosthetic only had one. A few months after trying it out, in May of 2016, I finally had the arm permanently fitted. I now walk around with a completely robotic arm. People stare at it and want to touch it all the time. It's huge, made of titanium, and it makes me look like I've just stepped out of some kind of science fiction comic.
I've had a good first year with the arm, though it's been challenging at times to adjust to the technology. It doesn't come with an instruction manual—you're just left to work out how to move with it by yourself.
But with time, it's become second nature. I especially enjoy the fact that the more subtle handiwork has become so much easier for me to deal with, thanks to this new arm. Tying my shoelaces, for example, isn't so hard anymore—the fingers on this robotic hand are much larger and have greater dexterity than my old one. I also discovered that my new arm has an auto-grip function that can sense when you're about to drop something, so it adjusts your grip.
Apart from all the practical functions, there's the added bonus that I'm a great source of entertainment for all children I meet—many of them flip out when they think they've spotted an actual robot. But it's not just children—doctors also get excited when they see me. When I recently went into the hospital with a small fracture in my left wrist, a bunch of medics swarmed around me to catch a glimpse of the cyborg. It wasn't long until they started asking if they could take a picture with me.
The same thing happened when I attended an anime convention in Brussels, a gaming convention in Germany, and at a meeting with parliamentary representatives in the mountains of Tyrol, Austria. I couldn't tell you how many Facebook profile pictures of strangers I show up in.
Watch: The prostheses of the future
The arm is a great conversation starter with women—it's like you're always carrying around a puppy. During sex, I leave the prosthetic on. It usually doesn't cross my mind to take it off because I'm much more mobile with it on. My partners don't seem to mind; they just focus on the rest of my body. For two women I've slept with in particular, it actually seemed to be a bit of a turn on—while in bed, they wouldn't stop touching it.
The majority of people I introduce myself to are comfortable around me and positive toward my disability, so much so that it's obvious to spot the few who are uneasy and try to avoid me. Of course, people's curiosity is often superficial—they're more interested in the robotic arm than they are in me as a person, but that's fine. I'm just happy to do my part in introducing something new to society, and hopefully, it will help put a stop to some people's prejudices against those who have disabilities.