Forget about robots rising up against humans for world domination. In the future we’re all going to be robot-human hybrids with the help of wearable computers. We’ve already seen Google Glass, the search giant’s augmented-reality glasses, and now the latest Y Combinator startup to come out of stealth, Thalmic Labs, is giving us a wrist cuff that will one day control computers, smartphones, gaming consoles, and remote-control devices with simple hand gestures.
Unlike voice-detecting Google Glass, and the camera-powered Kinect and Leap Motion controller, Thalmic Labs is going to the source of your hand and finger gestures – your forearm muscles. “In looking at wearable computers, we realized there are problems with input for augmented-reality devices,” says Thalmic Labs co-founder Stephen Lake. “You can use voice, but no one wants to be sitting on the subway talking to themselves, and cameras can’t follow wherever you go.”
I’d argue that thanks to Bluetooth headsets and Siri, we’ve already been talking to ourselves for the last decade, so talking to my glasses isn’t a huge stretch. But, I won’t deny that it looks cool to casually flick my hand to change the song on my MacBook, which is what Thalmic Labs is promising with its $149 forearm gadget called the Myo (a nod to the Greek prefix for muscle, but rhymes with Leo), which has an adjustable band that can accommodate almost anyone.
Using a technique called electromyography, which measures the electrical impulses produced by your muscles when you move them, the Myo’s sensors can detect when you make a gesture and translate that to a digital command for your computer, mobile device, or remote controlled vehicle. “When you go to move you hand, you’re using muscles in your forearm which, when they contract and activate, produce just a few microvolts of electrical activity,” says Lake. “Our sensors on the surface of the skin amplify that activity by thousands of times and plug it into a processor in the band, which is running machine learning algorithms.” Similar technology is found in high-tech arm and hand prosthetics, as well as the Necomimi Brainwave Controlled Cat Ears.
Since most humans activate the same muscles when they point their finger or wave their hand, Thalmic Labs was able to compile a set of specific electrical patterns based on our movements and translate them into thousands of digital commands. As you wear the Myo over time, Lake says, it begins to learn your unique electrical impulses and accuracy improves. The device also has haptic feedback – a small vibration – to tell you when you’ve completed a recognized gesture, such as a hand swipe or finger pinch. That helps shorten the learning curve, says Lake.
In a video showing off the Myo, the device controls video and audio playback, switches between screens on a computer, and directs remote-controlled devices, but Lake says there are many more ways to use it. “If you think about your daily life, you use your hands to interact with and manipulate just about everything you do, from pressing numbers on your phone to picking up your coffee,” says Lake. “Now think if we can take all those motions and actions and plug them into just about any computer or digital system, the possibilities are endless.” When the Myo ships in late 2013, Thalmic Labs will offer an open API so that developers can connect it to other systems or build their own programs.Though the idea of a motion control wristband might only appeal to the hardest-core of wearable computer enthusiasts right now, Lake has high hopes that the trend will eventually reach the masses. ‘Right now we’re just on the cusp of a major shift in computing, and whether it’s a Google product or something else, at some point in the next couple years wearable computing devices are going to change how everyone will communicate and interact with technology,” he says. “Ultimately the line between us and our devices will start becoming a lot more blurred.”
Thalmic Lab’s timing is spot-on. Google finally pulling the curtain back on its Project Glass augmented reality glasses has spurred (mostly positive) chatter about wearable computers, and how they’ll change our relationship with technology. Though Glass and Myo have a few years to go before more than just a slice of population will want to have them, it’s easy to picture a future in which everyone is wearing a computer. And it’s not a stretch to imagine the same people who would don a pair of glass-less glasses that can record video and photos, send emails and text, and look up anything on Google, would also slide their arm into a muscle-sensing band that can control computers with a hand gesture. If you’re one of those people, pre-order for the Myo starts today.