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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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August 13th, 2013
05:45 PM ET

How real is 'Elysium'? The true technology behind exoskeletons

Exo-skeletons are found found in nature, such as those that protect cockroaches. Remember what they say about how they can withstand nuclear explosions?

But there's a spate of exoskeletons to be found on the silver screen. In the box office smash "Elysium," the difference between Matt Damon's character being able to save the world and fail is an exo-skeleton, and technology that turns a metallic frame into a wearable boost beyond human capability.

Matt Damon is just the latest star to try on a super suit. "Iron Man" and Nintendo's "Metroid" have one, actress Sigourney Weaver stomped around in one for "Alien," and "Starship Troopers" paved the way for them all.

With a robust history of pop culture examples, its no wonder that real-life prototypes have also been evolving for decades.

General Electric's "Hardi-Man" project funded by the U.S. military, began in the 1960s. According to the manual, the exoskeleton could help users lift 1500 pounds, but it also weighed 1500 pounds. Users would literally need one to lift one.

Fast forward to today, and the suit has become more sophisticated. Lockheed Martin built the "hulc," an exoskeleton that helps soldiers tote up to 200 pounds without significantly weighing them down.

Today, this super human technology is also used to help people like Michael Gore.

Though he is paralyzed from the waist down, Gore can move around with this new, 27-pound device called the "Indego," which enables him to stand erect, and move forward without his wheelchair.

"If I want to stand up, I stand up," said Gore. "It is an emotional boost to stand up and talk with someone."

Using gyroscopes, microprocessors, sensors, and battery technology, today's exoskeleton suits are much more intuitive than their predecessors.

"The control of the device actually mimics what you and I do when we walk normally," said Craig Maxwell, vice president and cheif technology officer for Parker Hannifin, the company behind the technology of "Indego." "The next frontier for us will be how we control it, so the human machine interface. You know-do we tap right into the neural network of the brain to control the device."

"When you see somebody stand up and then you see the reaction of not only their reaction but their families reaction, many times I have to leave the room because I can feel myself getting choked up about it," said Maxwell.

Right now, there are a handful of patients on Earth using the "Indego" model in clinical trials. All are at The Shepard Center in Atlanta.

But Indego isn't the only model. Along with Parker Hannifin, companies like ReWalk are evolving exoskleton suits at such a pace that "Elysium's" 2054 model may be outdated well before the real world reaches 2015.

"The devices will get much more compact and sort of disappear," said Maxwell. "We think that eventually well be able to wear devices that will be able to be worn under the clothes."

So just as video chats and electric toothbrushes were once a Jetson's era fantasy, it seems the exoskeleton may one day be as common as contact lenses for those in need.

"It's hard not to imagine a future where we'll be able to restore mobility to the point where the wheelchair will be a thing of the past," said Maxwell. "The technology is moving very very quickly so I wouldn't be surprised to see it in the next 10 years."

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