Branching out: Artificial limbs that make a statement

By Magdalene Perez of MSN News | Alternative Limb Project
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Being proud to stand out

For most people who are missing a limb, wearing a prosthetic is about practicality — restoring the ability to walk or do other daily tasks. But some designers are pushing the boundaries of prosthetics, from building 3-D printed limbs to conceiving a tentacle arm that’s straight out of science fiction. See gallery

Others turn artificial limbs into a fashion statement, using techniques derived from the film industry or even automotive shops to create custom limbs that are works of art. What these unusual prosthetics have in common is allowing their owners to embrace standing out from the crowd and being different.

Sophie de Oliveira Barata, founder of The Alternative Limb Project, studied special effects before going on to make realistic limbs for a medical supplier, and she couldn’t help but think there are more possibilities.

“By just providing people with realistic prosthetics, you’re kind of encouraging them to fit back in and telling them there’s no alternative,” Barata said.

Rosemary Williams, Alternative Limb Project
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Stereo leg

This equal-parts-glam-and-punk-rock leg was created for British model and singer Viktoria Modesta in one of the Alternative Limb Project’s first designs. Modesta underwent a voluntary amputation five years ago following complications at birth that led to nerve damage and stunted growth.

While the stereo leg doesn’t actually play music, it fit with Modesta’s unique style and onstage persona, Barata said. She’s also working on a new leg that will play tunes — with an MP3-player docking station that lights up when it plays music.

“It's definitely not an everyday experience due to the amount of attention it receives,” said Modesta, who notes that the confidence she projects while wearing it challenges people’s perception of amputees.


Alternative Limb Project
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Crystallized leg

Barata also designed a crystal-studded leg for Modesta to wear while playing the Ice Queen during the London 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony.

Swarovski, which sponsored the sequence, provided the crystals for the costume, and Barata had just a few days to create the design and make it a reality.

“They got me involved and gave me a whole table of Swarovski crystals,” Barata said. “So I had all these crystals and a leg and I just had to figure out what to do with it.”


Omkaar Kotedia, Alternative Limb Project
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Removable 'muscles'

Ryan Seary lost his left foot and hand while working on explosives removal in Afghanistan. Knowing that Seary was “always looking for ways to pimp up his leg,” doctors put him in touch with Barata, she said. The result was a surreal design that plays with the line dividing the natural and artificial.

The leg features detachable faux muscles that were first mocked up as a 3-D drawing, then 3-D printed and painted. The sculptural cover attaches to Seary’s C-Leg, a microprocessor-controlled knee, and, at the other end, an artificial foot that is molded to partially resemble a real limb.

Reflecting on his experience in the British military, Seary said many amputees he knows have a desire to express their individuality through their new limbs.

“I think 99 percent of the amputees I have met would like an alternative limb, as we tend to think of our prosthetics more as items of clothing, like extended shoes or accessories,” Seary said on the Alternative Limb Project’s website.

Alternative Limb Project
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Snake arm

International swimmer and paratriathlete Jo-Jo Cranfield jumped at the chance to have a custom arm made when Barata approached her with a proposal for a London art exhibition. After considering a design that would address her (somewhat ironic) fear of fish, Cranfield settled on another of her least favorite animals — snakes.

“It’s so creepy but cool at the same time. I love it,” Cranfield wrote on her blog.

Alternative Limb Project
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Floral leg

A sports fanatic as a teenager, Kiera Roche continued to stay active after her leg was amputated following a car accident in 2001. The chairwoman of Limb Power, she’s walked the Great Wall of China, cycled from London to Paris, and run the London Marathon in 2013 on behalf of the Limbless Association.

She enjoys wearing her floral leg, sculpted by hand in silicone, because “it’s personal, it’s a fashion statement, not a political statement, and I love that,” Roche said on Alternative Limb Project’s website.

Alternative Limb Project
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Realistic limbs

In addition to her other-worldly models, Barata also produces stunningly real prosthetics that mirror a person’s skin tone and unique features, right down to the wrinkles.

The process involves coloring silicone with pigments to match a person’s skin tone, then layering the silicone in sheets that are less than half a millimeter thick. Barata sculpts the limbs by eye to match a cast of the amputee’s other limb, or if an amputee has lost both limbs, they are made to the client’s preference, she said.

“The realistic limbs — I think it’s an amazing service,” Barata said. “I can see why some people would opt for that option.”


Kaylene Kau
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Tentacle arm

When Kaylene Kau was given an assignment to create a prosthetic arm while studying industrial design at the University of Washington, she knew she wanted to do something radically different. Talking with amputees, she found that imitating the human hand wasn’t a necessity, since most use the prosthetic simply to assist the dominant hand. That means a prosthetic only needs to cover the basics, such as holding or gripping, she explained.

“After all, are you going to try to sew something with your prosthetic or your existing hand?” she said.

Bespoke Innovations
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Custom 3-D printing

In 2010, award-winning industrial designer Scott Summit teamed up with an orthopedic surgeon to create Bespoke Innovations, a company using rapid prototyping to personalize prosthetics. Now a division of the 3D-printing company 3D Systems, Bespoke makes durable — and fashionable — casings for prosthetics by sintering layers of nylon powder together, 3D Systems spokeswoman Alyssa Reichental said.

“One of the powerful things about the 3D-print technology is the fairly limitless complexity and the fact that it can be done completely custom to the customer’s specifics,” Reichental said.


Bespoke Innovations
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Custom 3-D printing

Before Bespoke builds a customized casing — or “fairing” as the company calls them — a client’s opposite leg is scanned, Reichental said.

“Then they flip it to mirror it,” Reichental said. “That way it feels more natural to you and less foreign than traditional prosthetics.”

To ensure that a prosthetic fits and functions properly before it’s customized, the company typically won’t build a fairing until someone has had the prosthetic for at least a year, Reichental said. Then Bespoke involves its clients in the design process of the outer covering so the final product reflects their own personal tastes, Reichental said. Dan Horkey
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Prosthetic 'tattoos'

Dan Horkey launched a business creating what he calls “prosthetic tattoo art” after customizing his own leg with a flame design over four years ago. After avoiding showing his prosthetic for two decades, decorating it was a way to be proud of it, Horkey said.

“It was instant – it just made me feel good,” Horkey said. “When I walked around in public, people wouldn’t look away and avoid eye contact. Instead it would provoke compliments. I was proud of my leg for the first time.”

Horkey now personalizes others’ prosthetics and braces through his business,, using automative paints and air brushing and chrome plating techniques.


Clara Molden, Alternative Limb Project
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Children's designs

Eight-year-old Pollyanna Hope has been getting new limbs every five to six months since she was 2, when she lost her legs in an accident. About two years ago, Barata began decorating the legs with designs based on Pollyanna’s own ideas, including pictures of bees and butterflies, her family and the outdoors.

“It makes it quite a joyful experience,” her mother, Sarah Hope, said. "Obviously, sometimes it’s hard. It turns a negative experience into something that’s quite fun.”

Pollyanna, and her grandmother who died in the same accident, have inspired the Hope family to set up Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope, a charity that provides prosthetic limbs for children in impoverished countries.