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An Armband Promises a Simpler Route to Gesture Control

Can an armband that controls gestures by measuring muscle activity make it as a mainstream gadget?
July 26, 2013

When it comes to gesture-control systems like Microsoft’s Kinect, some applications—like gaming—are obvious. Others—like controlling your window blinds—are less so.

Drone commander: The Myo armband senses electrical signals produced by the wearer’s muscle movements, and translates those signals to actions that can control applications on a computer or smartphone via low-power Bluetooth. Here, it’s shown controlling the flight of a small drone.

Yet that’s the kind of functionality Waterloo, Ontario-based startup Thalmic Labs is hoping will be possible with its first product, an armband called Myo that’s slated to start shipping late this year to some of the company’s earliest customers.

Gesture control has come a long way since Microsoft released the Kinect in 2010—the first truly mass-market gesture-control system. With Myo (pronounced “my-oh”), Thalmic Labs hopes a slew of recently enlisted developers will take things even further by building apps enabling the device to do everything from controlling virtual-reality systems to musical instruments (these ideas, plus the aforementioned hands-free window-blind control, were suggested by developers keen to get their hands on the device).

Myo stands out in a sea of gesture-control technologies, many of which rely on cameras or require bulky hardware to recognize your gestures and translate them into actions on a display. In addition to taking up space, such systems may need to be calibrated or require a certain amount of light to operate—all factors that can limit where and how you can use them (see “Look Before You Leap Motion”). And it’s still unknown how much consumers want to toss their computer mice, keyboards, and touch screens for gesture control.

Since the Myo armband interprets the electrical impulses generated by muscle movements in your forearm, it needs neither light nor a camera to operate. This, coupled with its relatively small size, could make it easier to use in darkened rooms or bright sunlight, and may offer neat mobile applications such as allowing it to control features on a smart watch.

Myo can tell the difference between different finger movements and sense hand rotations and movements by measuring the different electrical-impulse patterns that your movements generate and by using an inertial sensor to understand movements. With the band on your arm, you can do things like mimic shooting a gun to control a firearm in a video game, or swipe a hand to move through slides in a presentation. This information is sent to a processor in the armband, and an algorithm translates it into commands, which are sent via low-power Bluetooth to the gadget you’re trying to control, such as a smartphone.

Stephen Lake, a Thalmic Labs cofounder and its CEO, says the idea for Myo grew out of an unrelated project that he and fellow cofounder Matthew Bailey worked on as undergrads in the University of Waterloo’s mechatronics engineering program: a wearable assistive device for the blind that used a laser to scan for obstacles and translated that into tactile feedback. This got them thinking about how wearable devices may be the next big form factor in computing, and how they could be used to better interact with electronics. Last May, a week after graduation, Lake, Bailey, and their third cofounder (and fellow University of Waterloo mechatronics engineering student), Aaron Grant, moved into the office of Thalmic Labs.

Lake is careful not to narrow down the kinds of applications he’s hoping people will make for Myo—he says the company wants to “leave that creativity up to developers.” He mentions that Thalmic Labs has received a lot of interest from developers who are interested in paying the $149 to get their hands on the device before the general public (over 1,000 applications were submitted in the first 24 hours that signups were available), with suggested applications ranging from controlling musical instruments to operating window blinds. Eventually, Lake says, there will be a Myo directory where developers can list their apps.

The company is also interested in having its armband work with as many gadgets as possible. So far, Myo has been set up with devices including an iPhone, iPad, Mac and Windows computers, the Raspberry Pi computer, and a Parrot AR.Drone, as well as “a couple other industrial devices that I can’t really get much into,” Lake says. Thalmic Labs is also exploring how Myo can work with virtual-reality headset Oculus Rift and with Google’s head-mounted computer, Google Glass.

Despite not being on the market yet, Myo has taken off with consumers and investors: more than 30,000 people have preordered the device, which is slated to arrive early next year (at $149 apiece, that means Thalmic Labs will rake in at least $4.5 million in revenue when Myo starts shipping), and last month the company announced a $14.5 million series A funding round led by Intel Capital and Spark Capital.

All the positive attention could backfire, though, if Myo doesn’t work as well as it seems to in demo videos (one of which includes the tagline “effortless interaction”). Competitor Leap Motion, which uses a different kind of technology for its recently released gesture-control device, is facing this problem now, as its gadget has received lackluster reviews, including from MIT Technology Review.

There’s also the possibility that, beyond some obvious consumer applications like gaming, Myo will languish in relative obscurity. Gartner analyst Adib Ghubril says that while the device should be able to work well outdoors—useful for, say, controlling an unmanned aircraft—he expects Myo to be a niche device with few applications beyond gaming and the military.

“It’s not the next Google. It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, we’re all going with a Myo,’ ” he says.

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