Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was one of the major releases of 2016. The Square Enix and Eidos Montreal science fiction game envisioned a future where people augmented themselves with artificial body parts, such as powerful bionic limbs. The main character, Adam Jensen, helped root out a conspiracy against “augs,” or augmented humans, who received discrimination from “naturals.”
The video game raised questions about the ethics of human augmentation and just how far we can and should go when it comes to equipping people with artificial limbs and other improvements to their abilities. But in highlighting the humanity of the “augs,” the game showed empathy for people who need prosthetics to help them in their daily lives. It turns out that the future that Deus Ex designers predicted for 2027 is already here in some ways, with the advent of real-world bionic arms.
Daniel Melville has become the proud owner of a real-life bionic arm that is modeled on the one that Jensen uses in the video game. I loved that game, and what amazed me was how much of it was grounded in real science. The Deus Ex designers at Eidos Montreal used a science consultant to design their world in the near future, and they sought a way to make that future happen.
Melville was born with only a left hand, and he became a tester and brand ambassador for a company called Open Bionics. A couple of years ago, Square Enix partnered with Open Bionics and Razer to create a real 3D-printed Deus Ex arm. And now, Melville is wearing a more advanced version of that arm, complete with customizable face plates that can make him look like Adam Jensen or Iron Man.
Red Bull TV highlighted Melville in a video that captured what it was like to use the arm and how people react in a positive way when they find out it’s based on one of the coolest video game characters. I talked with Melville about the arm, his thoughts on the science and the science fiction behind it, and his hopes for how technology can help disabled people in the future.
We’re running this story on Christmas Eve because it’s an uplifting story about how technology can create a better life for people like Melville and how both science fiction and video games can inspire a better world.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me about some of your background. Can you give us more context about the arm?
Daniel Melville: I’m a tester for a company called Open Bionics that makes 3D-printed prosthetic arms. In the last four years now, I’ve been going from tester to ambassador. I’ve traveled around the world doing events and stuff like that. I’ve been lucky enough to work with them doing all sorts of things. I’ve actually worked with Square Enix. I didn’t do any design work on this, but we worked closely with the Deus Ex team. That was about two years ago. Open Bionics, officially, this April — I’ve been able to keep my arm because it’s been medically approved, an upgraded version that’s called the Hero Arm.
GamesBeat: Have you been missing a limb for a long time? Since birth?
Melville: Yes, I was born with only my left hand. I’m using muscles in my forearm to control the prosthetic. It’s very similar to how you would put your arm out and move your fist upward and downward. You can feel the muscles in the top and bottom of your forearm. That’s how it works.
In the middle of the Hero Arm, you can press a button, and it will change the grip pattern. You can pick up something a bit heavier — like a box with stuff in it. Or if I needed to pick up a piece of Lego, say, I could change the grip pattern to pick up something smaller, instead of using all the fingers in one go.
GamesBeat: How much fine control does it give you?
Melville: I can’t do individual fingers as yet, but with those grip patterns, it certainly helps me with day-to-day things. I can pick up to eight kilograms with the arm. If I want to hold a pencil, I can do that and draw with it, things like that.
GamesBeat: Is this a lot better compared to previous prosthetics that have been out there?
Melville: Yeah, massively. This is competing with bionic arms that are out there at the moment. When I was a kid, I had prosthetic arms that just didn’t do anything. They were just trying to make you look normal. And, well, what is normal these days? But it was very stale, in my eyes. It was just something I thought I had to wear, but I didn’t like it. It just made me feel more disabled.
GamesBeat: How did you hear about this? Were you already working with Open Bionics even before Square Enix got involved?
Melville: Yeah, I was with Open Bionics since day one. I’ve been their sort of lab monkey for the last four years. Being a big gamer, when I read the documents and learned they were working with Square Enix, to me that was — oh shit, I didn’t think this was going to happen.
GamesBeat: I’m interested in the whole theme of the game and the technology, but I never thought it would be anywhere near reality.
Melville: Growing up a science fiction fan, with Star Wars and all that kind of stuff, I didn’t think this kind of technology would be happening in my lifetime. It’s obviously mostly in films like that, set in the far future. Now, it’s weird to be in that reality. I’m actually living that reality now.
GamesBeat: Did it make you think about how you wanted to be perceived? The game presents these theories about what we should or shouldn’t let people do with this kind of technology.
Melville: The reason I got into it, mainly, is because when I was a kid, I would have wanted something like this. Now, it’s happening and that’s great because I’m helping the future happen. But what I am now seeing is that people are — even if it is seen as a joke, people are saying things like, “I’d cut my right arm off to have something like this.” More and more people want to advance themselves. “Why would I want a plain old hand when I could have a bionic arm?”
The technology isn’t quite there yet in those terms, of course. Punching through a wall like Adam Jensen — it’s not far off, from what I’ve seen, but it’s not there yet. But it is scary, the fact that the game just seems like a crazy concept at first, and now, this might actually be a reality, where people augment themselves because they want to run faster or do something better. It’s a bit of a scary thought, really.
GamesBeat: The world at some point may flip from the notion of helping people with disabilities to making average humans better.
Melville: Yeah, I completely agree. At first, it didn’t really come across to me like that. It was the last year or so, where things have become more and more advanced. At one point, people would have been crazy to do it, but now — people are talking seriously about this now. That’s the way it seems to be heading.
GamesBeat: You mentioned you can lift eight kilograms. Can you talk about some more specific things you can do that wouldn’t have been possible before?
Melville: Recently, I’ve been drawing a lot with my bionic arm, getting into that. I still can’t feel anything on that side, although maybe in the near future, hopefully, you’ll be able to actually feel when you touch something. I’ve been practicing drawing with the arm, and I’m actually getting better at drawing with my right than with my left, which is a bit of a worry [laughs]. And just everyday stuff. Without the arm, I’m still myself, but with the arm, it gives me, quite literally, that extra hand. Pardon the pun, but it’s true.
GamesBeat: You mentioned that your muscles can’t quite make the fingers move directly, but could you explain more about how you use those?
Melville: What I meant was, I can’t move the fingers individually, but with the muscle control, I can open and close the hand, pinch stuff and whatnot.
GamesBeat: At some point, could you have something that works like Alexa? Could you tell your fingers what to do? That’s a bit of my imagination at work, maybe.
Melville: It could be possible in the future. I’m not quite sure as yet. The next thing I want is haptic feedback, actually being able to feel stuff. If I’m holding a boiling hot coffee in my bionic arm, I can’t feel anything, so I have no idea if I’m melting my arm, which is kind of funny. For me, that’s the next step, being able to feel a handshake and whatnot.
GamesBeat: That’s almost like making something happen that’s computer generated in your mind — like virtual reality. If you touch something with a finger, the feedback could come in through a computer vision part.
Melville: That’s one way. A way I’ve seen a few people do it is being able to touch certain muscles that correspond to a certain finger. I’m not quite sure how that works, but I’ve seen a few things about it.
GamesBeat: There’s still a long way before you have exactly what you want.
Melville: With the way Open Bionics is going, it isn’t just about the functionality. It’s about the appearance. These new arms — you can take the covers off of it. I’ve got the Jensen arm covered, but I can take that off and put other covers on with different colors and the like. I’m actually allowed to say this now, but I’ve been working with Disney. They have three new skins coming out, new covers — an Iron Man one, a Star Wars BB-8 one, and a Frozen one. For kids, being able to not only do stuff with their arm, but to have this cool arm on — I’m not a fan of Frozen, but if you’re a kid and that’s one of your favorite films, that’s pretty epic, to be honest.
GamesBeat: Did you get a chance to interact with any of Square Enix’s game designers in any way?
Melville: I met quite a lot of the game designers, although it’s been a while now. Shaking their hands with an arm that’s in their video game was a bit surreal for them [laughs]. This thing that was once part of a computer game is now a reality. That was a bit crazy. They got quite emotional. I didn’t know what to think at first, but they’d come a long way with the Deus Ex games. Seeing what they’d made for a video game now become reality was emotional, a bit overwhelming.
GamesBeat: I was also interested in Open Bionics in general. They’re doing the low-cost 3D-printed arms that could make this a lot more affordable for people. What kind of cost are they at now?
Melville: In U.K. terms, when I was a kid, I always wanted a bionic arm because it was science fiction. But they were maybe 50 grand for the arm, and when you started growing, you couldn’t wear it anymore because you needed a new one, a bigger one. That was a ton more money. Open Bionics is looking to bring it down to even lower costs in the future, but right now, it’s about just under 10,000 pounds in the U.K., which is a big difference in terms of price.
GamesBeat: 3D printing really does bring down the costs, then.
Melville: Yeah. In the near future, with the way that’s going — I’ve even started my own 3D printing business from home as well, which just got started. I fell in love with the concept. At first, I thought if I’m going to have a 3D-printed bionic arm, I might as well learn about how it works — both the arm and the 3D printing — and it’s been really interesting.
With 3D printers becoming more mainstream, you might have people 3D printing their own fingers from home, you know? Snap a finger off the arm and just print the new part. I’m not sure that will quite ever happen, but it’s a cool concept, to imagine that one day I could be chopping an onion, cut off part of my finger, and just print myself a new one.
Costs could hopefully come down even more, but it just depends on how things in the industry are changing. 3D printing is becoming more and more popular, and people are becoming more aware of it, especially in the medical field today. You have people printing not just upper- and lower-limb prosthetics, but ear prosthetics and so on. It’s a huge industry, and it has the potential to do so much.
GamesBeat: Is working for Open Bionics your main focus, or do you have other things you’re doing?
Melville: I don’t get paid for what I do with Open Bionics. I just love doing it. I love going around and teaching people about it. My main work is starting my own small business in 3D printing. I teach kids and families how 3D printers work, about my arm. I’m a designer as well. I’m not amazing like a game designer, but I do my own design work, and I teach kids about what they can make themselves. Hopefully, I can encourage them to go into the design industry or the medical field. That’s where I’ve found my focus for now.
GamesBeat: That’s pretty hands-on work. It’s a testament to the arm that you can get things done.
Melville: Yeah, I think so, especially in terms of the Deus Ex arm. The original one, which you probably saw, has changed a lot. The covers are now the Deus Ex covers, but it’s also a different hand, different motors, and everything else. One day, I could be Jensen, or I could have no cover at all, or I could have an Iron Man cover. That’s pretty cool.
GamesBeat: Did you identify with Jensen at all, when you were playing the whole game?
Melville: I love playing all kinds of video games, but to have a protagonist character with prosthetics, or what they call them in the game, augmentations — seeing this character with these cool bionic arms and stuff like that, that’s a really cool concept. I kind of fell in love with the game anyway because of the art style, because of the story, because of Jensen himself. “I never asked for this,” and whatnot.
I never had a character to look up to in a video game like that, and now, we’re seeing games like Overwatch, with Junkrat and McCree, characters with bionic arms and legs and stuff like that. But for a time, that was the only character I could look up to. For me, he’s been like a personal hero. Apart from that, I did ask for this arm, and he didn’t. That’s a bit different [laughs]. And I don’t have a nano-blade or a taser in my knuckles. Maybe one day, but for now, perhaps it’s best that I don’t have them. I could get myself in trouble.
I’m really looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077 as well. That looks really cool. It’s another game I’d get on board with if I could. The other one I’d been looking forward to is Devil May Cry 5, with Neo Dante’s cool bionic arm. It’s great seeing all these characters with bionic prosthetics. For kids to see these characters in video games kick ass is the best thing I’ve ever seen.
GamesBeat: Hopefully, we’ll see Square Enix make a third game in the series, too.
Melville: I know it make take a little bit of time, and some of the guys that worked with it are on some other games for now. But they’ve promised me and a lot of other people that the franchise isn’t dead. It’s just going to come back not quite so soon as people might want it to.
GamesBeat: Are you looking into more of the science behind this and how quickly some of it might change? I wonder what the next small advances might be.
Melville: In the last year since I’ve really gotten involved with Open Bionics, I’ve seen other people with — I made friends with a guy called James Young in the U.K. who lost his lower leg and upper arm being hit by a train. He’s got the Metal Gear Solid arm. He was already very into the science and so on, and it’s been interesting to learn about body hacking.
I want to get more of an idea about how other people perceive what we’ll be doing in the future. I don’t just want to be a pretty face at the end of the day. Because I test this thing, I want to understand it. I don’t just want to be the guy who stands there saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing apart from I have this great arm.” [Laughs] There’s still so much for me to learn. I’ve been able to meet some great people.
My personal hope is that things can get better to a point where people can 3D print the arms from home, but for now — I know that the original Open Bionics arm was open source, so you can actually print and build it from home. In third-world countries, especially places that have been at war, it would be great to see people be able to have one for free. I know that’s a hard ask, but in the near future, it could potentially help a lot of people. It all comes down to money, unfortunately.