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An aerotrim is a 3-axis gimbal large enough to contain a human being, used for cardiovascular workout and equilibrioception (balance) training in pilots and astronauts. Aerotrims were used in gyms during the 1980s, but are currently out of production outside of professional applications. A handful of machines are still in circulation, largely used for entertainment at fairs and events and as science fiction showpieces in movies and television. Several companies around the world have picked up the idea and produced their own version with slight changes. One of the originals, made in Korea, can be found in Slovenia at Aerotrim Ekopool Celje.
The earliest patents for gimablled devices built to carry humans dates back up to 1907 (Patent #846925). There were several attempts at similar machines throughout the following 80 years by various inventors. Several of them, such as the 1907 and the 1920 version, in rectangular shape. The first round-frame human gimbal set patent application however was July 1964 (Patent #3141669).
The Aerotrim as it is known today was originally conceived in the early eighties by Helmut Suchy, an Austrian inventor, as a therapy for his ailing spine. Friends suggested its potential for gyms and hospitals (Patent #4799667). Suchy built the first prototype in his garage, attached to the walls, but it lacked general safety precautions and decent foot attachment mechanism. Only people of a certain height could ride it.
Based on a profit sharing agreement, Mr. Suchy, who unsuccessfully had applied for a patent in Austria, passed on the rights to the German entrepreneur Hermann Dittrich, who through his import-export company Contactos Trading, GmbH at great cost applied internationally for patent. Mr. Dittrich also chose the name Aerotrim over Suchy’s original 3D-Fun. Needing to make it safer, he came up with handles, the overhead hand protectors made of Plexiglas and the height-adjustable foot mechanism that allowed even children (of a minimum height) to use the machine. As a result, it even passed the German Technischer Überwachungsverein (TÜV) safety inspections. Contactos looked worldwide for manufacturers. Aerotrims began production in Germany, Korea, Taiwan and the United States, where negotiations started to form a company named “Gyrotec” with the renowned US ski manufacturer Hart Ski Company and other investors. Contactos launched its own coordinated ad campaign single-handed, first in Germany and globally over the next few years.
Contrary to the initial appearance, the Aerotrim is not a close-your-eyes-and-hold-on machine and does not cause dizziness or nausea if it is controlled by the rider themselves. Like a dumbbell or bicycle, human strength is required to direct the motions by shifting the rider's body. During a forward or backward spin, command of the machine becomes limited, but it is still possible to flip out of a spinning loop and translate the momentum from forward motion to a sideways, backwards, horizontal or vertical spin. It is the only stationary exercise machine known to have the ability to move into any direction by counterbalance alone.
It is this control, or "wheeling", that requires every muscle in the body to be used evenly, even those not usually targeted by weight training or general cardiovascular exercise. In addition, according to Randy Huntington, a personal athletic coach, "One major advantage that the 'superstar' possesses is a highly evolved spatial consciousness and kinesthetic response mechanism. The Aerotrim is an excellent choice for athletes seeking to safely develop these often overlooked attributes." Dr John White, of the London, England Institute of Higher Education stated "It's not a gimmick, it's a very serious and important way of training... it's been particularly useful in blind people and also people with severe physical handicaps. It builds confidence, it allows them to work out in a totally new way, one they haven't experienced before." Anthony Amado of the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team said "The Aerotrim has been beneficial in my training for the national team trials." The spinning motion gives a feeling of weightlessness and it is this feeling that can cause a healthy addiction. Douglas Raymond, a physical therapist stated "There is no question that the Aerotrim improves balance, coordination and spatial awareness in neurological disorders. The clinician is able to move the patients through all the planes either passively or actively." Regular users, colloquially known as Wheelers or Aeronauts, began to devise and name moves and routines, sometimes in synchrony with two or more machines.
Going to Hollywood
As soon as it hit television in Germany the Aerotrim was often featured and used as a prop in movies, television series, commercials and even as a prize in game shows. On American television, it had been presented as a prop in several commercials, followed by sci-fi themed shows and movies, including Fortress, Gattaca, The Lawnmower Man (where it is called cyclosphere; however, it has been argued by purists that the machine featured here was only influenced by the Aerotrim) and more recently aboard Star Trek: Enterprise.
Influence on the 80s
Its large size and appearance made it an instant crowd pleaser, drawing masses in all its public appearances. It was readily featured in the general media, often in feature stories and cover pages, which is why it enjoyed a worldwide exposure.
Its size and retail price made it unreachable for most private owners and it was only large gyms, hospitals and even freestyle-ski resorts that acquired it, often several at once.
If a giant leap from gym equipment to toy, it was a small step to space. It did not take long for the aeronautical community to see its value for equilibrium and weightlessness exercise. An entire fleet was acquired by Lufthansa, another by the Korean air force and several were used by the German space agency for astronaut training. Most European astronauts that have gone to MIR used the Aerotrim for preparation. Soon the myth emerged that the Aerotrim was originally developed to prepare astronauts for weightlessness. This however is obviously inaccurate. To this day ESA uses the machine for its official training programs, as well as part of its public training programs.
Several variations of the original were produced, some by Contactos, some by cloners. These include a children’s version (MiniAerotrim), wheelchair versions suitable for use by paraplegics or quadriplegics, as well as motorized versions.
Its primary role in sci-fi movies, besides futuristic astronaut-trainer, was as a virtual environment simulator. But it was not until the mid-nineties that it actually was used as such. Adding VR goggles and a joystick it could be used to play a few games, but since its motion is controlled by the user, its application for VE simulation was limited. This was changed when a motorized version was introduced, which basically interlocked the Aerotrim and user in a VE. Designed as an entertainment device, this version supported VEs in a head mounted display, 3-D binaural sound spacing and up to two joysticks, with either head tracking or user tracking based on the position of the gimbals.
Just a year after the launch, the first clones appeared and Contactos, owning worldwide patents by then, saw itself involved in its inaugural patent battle. But the clones kept on coming in the US, Italy, Korea, France, and other countries, trying to avoid the patents by changing the foothold and even the shape (some companies produced square and even decagon shaped clones) as well as the firm hip support which alone made the Aerotrim a controllable device. Over the following years international lawyers were hired to handle the various court cases. Contactos basically won all of them, but the legal fees soon outweighed the company’s income from this project and Contactos had to keep on financing it through other business activities.
In a final desperate move to save a sinking ship, Contactos passed on rights to an Irish company named Lifeway Ltd. But even this movement could not save it from doom. Soon they too had to cease production. Nearly exactly ten years after its birth, the last true Aerotrim was produced in late 1990 and the patent rights were lost due to lack of interest in keeping them alive.
At present, there are several clone versions of the original Aerotrim with different names on the market, but the only company still building variations with modest success is GyroGym, Inc.
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- Patent #Patent #4799667
- Human Gyroscopes
- See Enterprise episode "Vanishing Point", Season 2, Episode 10. Commander Tucker can be seen using an Aerotrim in the gymnasium.
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- INSTITUTE FOR DEFENSE ANALYSES - IDA Review of Virtual Environment Interface Technology (includes Orbotron)
- Full body, Olfactory, Gustatory, Technologies (includes Cybertron and Orbotron)