Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand

by Damon Lowe, Chief Curator of Science & Technology and Curator of Biology

I remember watching Star Wars®: The Empire Strikes Back as a young boy and being totally devastated when my hero, Luke Skywalker, lost his hand to the evil Darth Vader. That sadness was quickly replaced with a sense of awe as I watched two medical droids fix him up with a brand new hand! Wow, to be able to suffer a devastating injury like that, and then to have a fully functional replacement would be the ultimate in technological advancement. I was quickly disappointed again when my older, more knowledgeable brother explained that, while Luke could get a new hand, in the real world it was impossible. The technology didn’t exist yet.

prosthetic_SWMedicalUpClose_SmallFast forward 30 years and, while we aren’t quite capable of affixing a fully functional hand that can feel and do everything the original hand did, we can come pretty close. Take for instance the new i-limb ultra prosthetic hand. This amazing piece of technology is made from aluminum, contains a rechargeable battery, and has a rotating thumb and individually powered fingers — each with their own tiny motors and powerful microprocessors to make it all work together. This allows for a surprising amount of dexterity in an artificial hand. The i-limb ultra allows its users to perform tasks such as tying a shoelace and using a computer mouse. It even has senses when things are slipping and automatically tightens its grip!

Another cool thing about the i-limb ultra is how users interface with it. The i-limb is myoelectric, meaning that is uses small electric signals generated by the muscles in the remaining arm to control the hand. These signals are detected by electrodes placed on the arm and the signal is transmitted to the tiny computer in the i-limb, which then controls the movement of the hand. If this isn’t high tech enough, the i-limb can also be controlled by your iPhone! It connects via Bluetooth and the user can choose from 24 pre-programmed grips or gestures, but light saber grip isn’t one of them … yet. So, while we aren’t quite able to have droids replace hands when an evil Sith Lord chops them off, we are getting much closer. Come to the Indiana State Museum to see Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, May 25 through Sept. 2, and see what other science fiction technologies have become real!

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, presented by Bose Corporation®, was developed by the Museum of Science, Boston, and Lucasfilm Ltd. Star Wars objects in this exhibition are on loan from the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum.
TM & ©2013 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.
This material is based upon work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0307875.

Local Sponsor: McDonalds of Central Indiana
With additional local support from WISH-TV8 and Hamilton Exhibits