“Mind-blowing.” That’s how filmmakers Matthew Orr and Gideon Gil describe the experience of making their new film Augmented, which tells the story of ingenious new technology that allows prosthetic legs to move and feel like the real thing.
Appearing on NOVA this month, Augmented follows MIT’s Hugh Herr, whose legs were amputated after a 1982 rock climbing accident. Frustrated by the basic prosthetic legs he was given, Herr set out to improve their design. While still a teenager, he crafted outsized prosthetic limbs that made him an even more accomplished climber than before the accident. Then, after training as an engineer, Herr devoted himself to creating advanced limbs that use electronics to mimic the body’s own systems of muscle and nervous system control.
The film follows the first test of revolutionary amputation techniques that optimized a patient’s limbs for communication with the robotic devices. GBH’s own Heather MacDonald, senior director of digital product development, co-wrote and produced the film. She also wrote the Emmy-award winning film Jim: The James Foley Story.
“Hearing the patient talk about the experience of having a prosthetic device that felt like it was a part of him, that felt like his own limb, was so mindblowing,” said Gil, a producer and writer for the film. “You could see that he felt whole again—it was almost spiritual how it affected him. It’s not just a mechanical thing.”
Herr’s story is “absolutely riveting,” said Chris Schmidt, NOVA co-executive producer. “We’re so impressed by how he transforms his harrowing experience into the resolve he demonstrates in his work.”
Orr and Gil, both journalists, connected with NOVA at the 2018 Science Media Awards and Summit in the Hub (SMASH) conference at GBH. “They held a pitch fest,” said Gil, who works at the Boston-based medical news site STAT.
“It was like speed-dating—we described the film to NOVA, and they said please come back to us when it’s done.”
Augmented is an ideal film for NOVA, said Julia Cort, co-executive producer. “The story as well as all the science is driven and delivered entirely by the characters in the film,” she said. “Through Herr’s perspective, the film presents a very provocative way of looking at the potential for amputation and robotic limbs—not as deficits or even replacements, but improvements to the human body.”
These high-tech developments will continue to accelerate and bring with them huge societal implications, said director Orr, an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.
“There’s a lot of equity issues that we as a society will have to figure out. Who gets to have these? Everyone? Just the folks who can afford them?” he said.
In the meantime, scientists and engineers are continuing to expand the possibilities.
“When we have all these bionic interventions at our disposal, individuals will be able to design their own physicality, design their own cognitive and emotional experience and will be able to sculpt their own identity,” said Herr in the film.
“In that future, when we look at the normal innate biological body, we will say, ‘Oh, so boring.’”
A half-hour short Predicting My MS, which will follow the broadcast of Augmented, tracks a filmmaker with a rare type of multiple sclerosis as he investigates the potential causes of his own MS and, in the process, learns about the mysterious disease with no known cure.
Watch Augmented on GBH 2 on February 23 at 9pm.