Adding sensation to prosthetics: Q&A with Sophie de Oliveira Barata

At TEDMED 2014, Sophie de Oliveira Barata, founder of The Alternative Limb Project, gave us a glimpse into her wildly creative process of designing imaginative, personalized prosthetics. We reached out to learn more about her story and what lies ahead.

Sophie de Oliveira Barata at TEDMED 2014
“So this is a form of expression, an empowerment, a celebration. It’s their choice of how to complete their body — whether that means having a realistic match or something from an unexplored imagination.” – Sophie on the TEDMED 2014 stage.

You’re working on a documentary – “The Alternative Limb Project” – about your work with a young soldier amputee. Can you tell us a little more?

It will be an intimate portrait documentary, following the lives of three inspirational amputees on their journeys to creating unique prosthetic limbs that embody their interests, imaginations and personalities. It tells the story from inception to end – beginning with the design, the construction, and continuing to the completion of the limbs, and beyond.

The documentary asks if the new, alternative limb has had any positive impact on the amputees’ perceptions of their bodies. It explores ideas surrounding the connection between the human body and mind, investigating how the imagination can translate into a physical object and create a tangible realization of one’s personality.

We conduct a series of experiments with the amputees, testing our hypothesis that they form a stronger sense of “ownership” with the alternative limbs than they experience with their standard prostheses.  The aim of the experiments is to assess the significance of “The Alternative Limb Project’ as a therapeutic service for amputees by focusing on and comparing the sense of “ownership” experienced by the participants, both before and after their limb is made.

Tell us – if you were to lose a limb, how would your surreal prosthesis look?

I would want it to be classic, humorous and versatile.  If it were an arm, it would be an arm shape to mirror my other side.  It would be decorated in etched leather, with intricate metal-work housing various compartments.  One would be a long compartment for useful interchangeable devices, like a smart-phone, projector or sewing kit. If it were a leg, it would be made up of interchangeable panels with gaps on either side so daylight could shine through the leg. It would also have a little brass cuckoo bird that pops out on the hour.

You’ve shared that one of your goals is to break down social barriers and change the dialogue surrounding prostheses.  Are you involved in any kind of educational outreach with schools or universities?

I have visited a few schools to discuss prostheses.  When I asked the children to draw their “ultimate” alternative limb, the results were fascinating, from sweet (candy) dispenser legs to arms that house pet stick insects. One little boy just drew a realistic arm and said, “I would want this again.”  Hearing that, I was filled with admiration for his independent thinking. The children, as you would expect, were curious and interested.  Once, following a talk, the head teacher announced that an old student would be returning to show his new electronic hand the following week.  His final words were, “Remember, don’t point and stare – that would be rude.”  Considering that we had just spent time talking about breaking down barriers and reducing stigma, I was quite surprised at what he said.

What’s next for you?
To create more exciting and challenging projects, and to continue inspiring a positive dialogue about the body.