A Brief Excursion into Skiing's Cyborg Future
Last winter, when the robotics firm Roam released its latest version of Elevate, a revolutionary exoskeleton promising to boost skiing performance, our writer knew he had to give it a test drive. His analysis: the company's debut product is fun yet flawed—but its vision of a tech-assisted sports future will still blow your mind.
In November 2014, Jim Harris, a photographer from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and two friends arrived in Punta Arenas, a large town in southern Chile. They were there to embark on a bold adventure: a monthlong, 350-mile ski traverse of the Patagonia ice cap. The plan was to utilize kites attached to their harnesses to help aid locomotion, effectively towing them across the frozen landscape. The day before the expedition, Harris was testing his kite in an open field when a gust of wind lifted him up, carried him the length of a football field, and then, in a fluid, violent action, swept him up and over the sail and tomahawked him into the ground, knocking him unconscious.
When Harris came to, he couldn’t feel anything below his sternum, and he lay in the field, unable to move. “I just stared at the sky and tried to focus on my breathing until help arrived,” he told me. By that night he was in a local hospital, stable but seriously injured. He had shattered nine vertebrae and almost completely severed his spinal cord. It seemed unlikely that he would ever walk again.
I met Harris in February 2020. Not only was he walking again, he was skiing. It was a powder day at Snowmass Resort, not far from his home, and I’d arranged to connect with him that morning to check out a device that enabled him to shred all day, despite his disability. We met up at a demo center run by Roam, a San Francisco–based company that has developed a battery-powered exoskeleton designed specifically for skiers. Called the Elevate, it looks a little like an elaborate knee brace, with an articulating frame and pneumatic air chambers that function like shock absorbers. The frame buckles around your lower and upper legs and attaches to a small compressor, carried in a backpack, that controls the air pressure. Proprietary artificial-intelligence software that runs the compressor “learns” how much support is best for your level of skiing. It’s wearable tech on steroids.
I’d first seen the Elevate a year earlier, at a press event at Eldora Ski Area, near Boulder, Colorado. There, Roam’s founder, Tim Swift, introduced the media crew to the product and outlined the company’s ambitious plans for a public rollout through demo centers at premier resorts across the West, including Snowmass, Big Sky, Park City, and Sun Valley. The Elevate, he said, wasn't just for disabled individuals. It could help any able-bodied skier who wanted an extra boost—from seniors with achy knees to young guns looking to charge from bell to bell. “We provide magic,” he said several times.
I didn’t get to try the device that day, but the reviews had been mixed from my media colleagues at Eldora—skiers of various ages, all with experience, ranging from intermediate to expert. Some felt it was too cumbersome and didn’t enhance their skiing. But others liked it. One tester, Lisa Dawson, said chronic knee pain had derailed her skiing, but using the Elevate felt like strapping on a new set of legs. “I slowly made a turn, then another and another, each faster and more fluid,” she wrote later on the website WildSnow. “I kid you not: no pain at all. By the end of the run, I was making the carefree turns of my youth.”
In the year since, Roam had made some updates to the Elevate’s design. The one in Snowmass looked slightly more refined. I buckled into the product and headed for the lifts, alongside Harris and Johnnie Kern, Roam’s director of product marketing. It was strange and confining to walk in the apparatus, but once we clicked into our skis and started sliding over snow, the device came to life. In the lift line, other skiers stared at the cyborg powder bros, and we fielded a lot of questions about what the hell we were wearing.
“For me, it makes a pretty substantial difference, minimizing my disability,” Harris, who had used the Elevate previously, told me as we rode the chairlift. “I wouldn’t say I’m a rad skier now, but I can ski at moderate speed and feel confident and not like I’m a hazard to myself or to others.”
There was about eight inches of new snow that day, and I was eager to plunge into it. We traversed to the top of a low-angle run near the lift. Would the promise of augmented legs turn a good day into an epic one, or would they just get in the way? I was about to find out.
High-tech products that not only improve the experience of our favorite sports but cross the line into performance enhancement have been hitting the mainstream with gusto recently, from Nike’s Vaporfly shoe, which helped usher in the first sub-two-hour marathon, to fast and efficient e-bikes that are proliferating on roads and trails. There are swimsuits that reduce drag, artificial wave pools for surfers that promise perfect swells every time, and a backpack that “floats” behind your torso to reduce your backpacking burden. And those are just a few recent examples.
There will always be Luddites who push back against the tech-assisted future of sports, but equipment engineered to make our outdoor passions easier, safer, and more convenient—and in some cases, more rad—is only going to grow in popularity. Look at the booming e-bike market. When electric mountain bikes started multiplying a decade or so ago, they were initially greeted with, at best, resistance, and at worst, ridicule and rejection. Once frumpy rigs favored mostly by commuters, they now come in sleek designs and represent the fastest-growing segment of the industry.
“E-bikes limped along for years until we shrank the batteries and refined the motor, then boom, they really took off,” says bike-industry pioneer Gary Fisher, who continues to consult on bike construction with Trek. “Now e-mountain bikes do three important things: they help make riding a little easier, help you keep up, and help you have more fun.”
The Elevate arrives with a similar pitch for skiers. I didn’t expect it to disrupt downhill skiing the way powered mountain bikes have upended singletrack riding, at least not right away, but there is something undeniably cool and enticing about this kind of product. Other ski-assist devices are out there. The Constant-Force Articulating Dynamic Struts (CADS) system, a fancy name for what are essentially thin shock absorbers that provide support (and that look like trekking poles attached to your waist and the back of your boots), debuted in the early nineties. But CADS is a passive platform that hardly compares to the Elevate’s sophisticated engineering.
Roam’s Tim Swift is a veteran of the exoskeleton industry. After graduating from Fresno State, Swift earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. While there, he met the founder of Berkeley Bionics, which was developing a new kind of powered exoskeleton—a wearable robot. In 2005, Swift became an early employee at the company, since renamed Ekso Bionics, and helped spearhead the development of an exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk, called eLegs, which Time magazine named one of the 50 Best Innovations of 2010.
But for all their innovation, the eLegs still seemed a long way from becoming a mainstream product. “When I was building traditional exoskeletons, we would use the Suck Test,” Swift says. “It was like, could we put someone in a suit and have them not say any part of it sucks? If the word suck didn’t come up, you were doing well. With the Elevate, we actually started using the Magic Test. Our standard was, if someone tried it and didn’t tell us it was magic, we were missing the mark.”
During our powder day at Snowmass, I kept pondering the Magic Test. As a healthy expert skier, I probably wasn’t quite the target market for the device. But then again, I was also uniquely suited to evaluate it, since I ski often in varied terrain and conditions and could appreciate gear that improved the experience.
After three mellow low-angle runs, I ventured over to a rowdier trail called Buckskin that was steep and thickly moguled. I expected the Elevate to be unwieldy in such an environment, but instead I found it surprisingly functional. The kit felt a little stiff and heavy—it weighs about 15 pounds in total—but the extra support on the expert pitch was noticeable.
As I angled into each turn, I could feel (and hear, since it buzzed) the compressor driving air into the system and providing cushioning and support while my knees flexed. What I couldn’t detect were the sensors in the leg frame and backpack that were recording knee angle and body position before feeding the information back to the compressor. If I experienced any magic, it was in the way the Elevate felt better and more natural the more I used it through the day.
The exoskeleton performed best on intermediate terrain, where speed and turn radius is somewhat more consistent. But after using it, I could easily imagine a future generation of the product that allowed you to ping-pong down double-black runs with style and grace. The device didn’t seem to be quite there yet—the model I was using was still a little herky-jerky—but it felt like it was on the brink of something big.
Roam is running at exoskeleton development with a fairly novel strategy for the industry: to build a product for consumers. “Roam went straight to people as fast as they could,” says Elliott Rouse, director of the neurobionics lab at the University of Michigan and an exoskeleton expert. “And that’s really neat. You just don’t see that in our field. We’re good at writing grants, we’re good at research, but our products rarely make it out of the lab.
“Another reason why I respect them so much,” he adds, “is that it’s still an open question as to whether people will want to wear exoskeletons. They’re cool, and we like to watch them in movies. But we don’t know if people want to buy them and use them. Roam wasn’t deterred by that concept. They were just going to go for it and see what happens.”
Rouse met Swift in 2013, and a year later they collaborated on a grant sponsored by the U.S. military to build an exoskeleton for soldiers. Dubbed TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit), it was an ambitious attempt by the federal government to create a highly functional supersuit. Barack Obama himself announced it in February of that year, stating, somewhat wryly, “We’re building Iron Man.” But five years and more than $80 million later, TALOS was scrapped after failing to produce a suit that worked.
The idea of a real-life Iron Man—an exoskeleton that can enhance strength, speed, mobility, and durability—may be the oldest and most elaborate concept in the world of wearable tech. Designs and prototypes trace back to the 19th century. Crude products came and went, but always went.
In the 1960s, exoskeletons took off in two important directions. The first was imaginary, fueled by popular depictions like those from Robert Heinlein’s classic 1959 sci-fi novel Starship Troopers, and the emergence of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man character, which first appeared in 1963. The second was a bona fide attempt to build a robo-suit, launched by General Electric in 1965. The creation, a 1,500-pound contraption called the Hardiman, was about as humanlike as a backhoe. (The power loader piloted by Ripley in Aliens was reminiscent of the Hardiman). Still, it worked. Sort of. A person wearing the Hardiman could lift a crate weighing 1,500 pounds, but operating it required an enormous amount of energy and material. And it couldn’t do much beyond assisting in rudimentary tasks.
For better or worse, the Hardiman and related projects propelled exoskeleton design down the road of heavy, elaborately geared frames. Following this approach, building a suit that worked well was mostly a matter of scale—making the metals light enough and the motors small enough that it could mimic organic movement.
But for Tim Swift, the traditional design approach presented an insurmountable problem. “The tool set that has been used for conventional development is, simply put, wrong,” he says. “You're not going to create enough power at a low enough weight to be practical for this kind of mobile application.”
“I loved my time at Ekso,” Swift told me, “I mean, we dreamt the eLegs up from nothing, and I got to watch people walk for the first time in 30 years. But the thing that struck me, more than the tears and families hugging, was that, at the end of every single visit, without fail, they sat down, unstrapped the device, transferred into their wheelchair, and rolled out the door. It’s like it never happened, because we were offering something that was as expensive as a house.”
Swift left Ekso convinced that the standard approach was a dead end. What he really wanted was to make something that would be useful to a large number of people, a high-impact device that could change lives, even if it was just the next Roomba. Swift’s breakthrough with Roam came, in part, from a former colleague who was working with a new type of actuator built around fabric and compressed air. Maybe exoskeletons weren’t a pipe dream; maybe they just needed a big rethink.
When Swift started sharing his ideas with colleagues in the industry, they were largely dismissive. The suggestion that fabric and air could usurp metal, gears, and motors was ambitious, to say the least. But Swift knew he was on to something, and downhill skiing was the ideal sport to help him along.
With skiing, gravity does most of the work involved with forward movement. That means Roam’s Elevate “can get away with more of a springlike behavior than a motor behavior,” says the University of Michigan’s Rouse. “Since you’re outside, noise from the compressor is going to be less of an issue. And people are tolerant of wearing things when they ski. It’s really a genius application. The hardware, control, and application are all very well matched.”
By the 2019–20 ski season, Roam had about a hundred units in circulation at its demo centers. Feedback was mostly positive, and the company was planning an aggressive expansion of its on-snow demo program for the 2020–21 season. But then COVID-19 hit last winter, derailing the ski industry.
“The playing field really moved on us,” says Swift, referring to the pandemic and the economic uncertainty that has accompanied it. “We are a hundred percent sold that we can change people's lives with a product like Elevate, and there is a strong market. But what we’re not convinced of is that success is within our grasp, because there might not be customers there until the pandemic subsides.”
When I talked to Swift in the fall, as the new ski season approached, he said Roam had “de-emphasized” its work on the Elevate for the time being, though it hadn’t ditched its efforts altogether. The company has had to suspend its demo program this season until pandemic restrictions are lifted at resorts, but hope to resume it as soon as possible. But he stressed that, ultimately, Roam wasn’t just developing a product but a platform for exoskeleton design—one built on air and fabric rather than metal and motors.
In lieu of focusing on its ski device, the company had pivoted to products for medical use and tactical applications. Swift sent me a video—something the public hadn’t seen—of some testing they’d conducted with soldiers utilizing a device that looked a lot like the Elevate, sometimes referred to simply as “Knees.” In the first scene, a brawny guy carrying another man slung on his back runs up a set of stairs with apparent ease. In the next, he cranks out a series of squats with a heavy sandbag, barely breaking a sweat.
Roam was also developing a smaller product, fitted around the ankles and used specifically for running. Some of the test results were startling. In one, according to Swift, a former Olympic runner was able to run 17 miles per hour, with a heart rate of 150 beats per minute. That translates to a marathon time of 1:32—while still being able to hold a conversation.
“This is the first exoskeleton ever developed that has shown a metabolic benefit while running,” Swift says. “It’s still in the evaluation phase. Our focus is mainly on commercializing the knees. But you can see where it’s going.”
I could see where it was going, and it was pretty impressive. Maybe not Iron Man impressive—that was going to remain a comic-book fantasy for now—but enticing enough that it probably won’t be long (a few years maybe?) until we start seeing new feats of bionic athleticism: running up and down Mount Everest or other huge mountains in record time, Kilian Jornet style, or new levels of performance and heroics from, say, wildland firefighters. Glimpses of this kind of future tech reminded me that these products often inch along in near total obscurity until a key tweak makes the user experience suddenly crystalize.
“It’s why the filter is Magic and not Suck,” Swift says when I mention this to him. “Engineers tend to get too caught up in engineering and lose the emotional aspect of the device. We’ve benefited a lot from being out on the slopes and having customers driving the product. We do a lot of surveys, and that helps direct what we work on.”
I thought about this comment from Swift a lot, particularly as it related to my day on the slopes with Jim Harris. The Elevate didn’t suck, even if it hadn’t exactly been magical for me. It wasn’t quite ready for widespread adoption among able-bodied skiers, but it was certainly a big step forward for skiers who could use a little extra assist, like Harris. We’d had a blast and skied until the last chair in the afternoon, a feat Harris said he would not have been able to do without the exoskeleton. He was buoyant and chatty when we adjourned for après margaritas at a slopeside bar.
“I could see some pushback in the outdoor community if this technology really takes off,” Harris said as we sipped our drinks. “But for now, especially for someone like me, it’s a really legitimate use, it’s exciting—to be able to have this experience that really helps you be focused and present. As a photographer, I’m always trying to capture that kind of moment, like just freeze it, and then share it.”