SAO PAULO, Brazil - Amid the samba rhythms and the swirling dancers featured during the soccer World Cup's opening ceremony on Thursday, one moment is likely to make jaws drop across the globe.
Paralyzed from the waist down, a young Brazilian will rise from his wheelchair, walk a few steps and kick the tournament's first ball.
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This scene seemingly from science fiction will involve no trickery. He will do it using his brain power.
NBC News was given exclusive access to a laboratory where the technology was developed and met the doctor who was inspired by the almost-telepathic understanding between the players of the great Brazilian soccer teams he has watched since boyhood.
“It’s going to be like putting a man on the moon,” said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the neuroscientist who has been working for years on transmitting brain signals to make machinery, robots and living creatures move.
He showed off the prototype of the robot-like machine that will be used on Thursday and controlled by a young paraplegic. It was like something from “Star Wars,” a cross between a medieval suit of armor and a backpack made of metal.
The man will wear this suit, called an exoskeleton, and a cap with electrodes inside. They will read his brain signals, pass them to the computer in the backpack, which will tell the suit to move.
Brazilian neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis (right) works on the Walk Again Project.
Hydraulic drivers on the suit will then move his legs and give him the sensation of treading on grass. He will feel the vibrations of his footsteps throughout his body.
Nicolelis was overcome by emotion when he recalled the first time he saw this happen in his lab.
“We were all amazed. Many of us in this lab have shed tears watching these patients walking again. It is so moving,” said Nicolelis, who leads the international Walk Again Project.
One person will kick the ball on Thursday but seven others will be watching in wheelchairs. In May, two women became the seventh and eighth people to control the exoskeleton. The first woman walked “a total of 132 steps, to the awe of everyone present,” Nicolelis recalled.
He said they rehearsed the kick twice at the stadium and it has worked. However, it's possible something might go wrong during the ceremony and Nicolelis will have his heart in his mouth knowing what’s coming.
But most of those watching around the world won’t guess what they’re about to see; a small miracle, a giant leap for mankind and the most amazing kick of the whole World Cup.
First published June 12 2014, 12:40 AM
Bill Neely is NBC News chief global correspondent. He joined NBC News from Britainâ€™s ITV News in January 2014. Neely was ITV News international editor for 11 years. Over the course of 30 years in journalism, he has covered more than a dozen wars and conflicts from Northern Ireland to Syria, and has been embedded regularly with U.S. and British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union and he has reported more than a dozen natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, and the deadly earthquakes in China, Haiti, and Pakistan. During his six years as ITV News Washington correspondent, which spanned the presidencies of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clintonâ€™s first term, he covered key stories in the U.S. such as the Oklahoma City bombings, the Atlanta Olympics, and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. He later closely followed the aftermath of 9/11 and, most recently, Superstorm Sandy.
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His reports from across the globe have earned many prestigious awards, including numerous Royal Television Society awards, an Emmy for coverage of the 2008 earthquake in China, and an unprecedented three consecutive BAFTA awards, the British equivalent of the Oscars, for his work in China, Haiti, and the U.K.