A View from John Pavlus
Can a Myoelectric Armband Replace Your Mouse?
MYO enables personal gestural computing without clunky cameras.
It looks like Minority Report, but better: the MYO armband will (according to the promo video) let you control iTunes by snapping your fingers, command radio-controlled toys like Luke using the Force, and flash through Powerpoint presentations without using a clicker. And you won’t have to wave awkwardly in front of a depth camera in order to do it. MYO doesn’t rely on cameras at all: as its name implies, the device uses myoelectric sensors (similar to those used in prosthetics) to sense electrical impulses in your arm muscles as you move your hand, wrist and fingers. Then it translates those impulses into UI commands. It’s like a Nintendo Power Glove without the glove.
It also looks a bit too good to be true, so I reached out to Thalmic Labs to ask a few questions. First, do all those uses shown in the video actually exist, or are they just visual-effects mockups? Thalmic Labs co-founder Stephen Lake answered somewhat ambiguously: “The video is designed to show a small sample of ways the device can be used – to inspire people to think of ways they might use the technology,” he told me via email. “The things we showed – Sphero, Parrot drone, Powerpoint, and so on – are all real integrations that will be available when the MYO ships (will be open-source too).” The snowboarder using MYO to control a HUD is definitely just a visual effect, he confirmed.
I also asked Lake what the out-of-the-box user experience would be like. If MYO is supposed to potentially replace the mouse as an all-purpose computer peripheral – which Lake says he intends, along with “a whole host of new scenarios that are completely outside of what we think of for human-computer interaction currently” – then it should be pretty obvious what you can and can’t do with it, regardless of what application you’re using. But that’s the rub with gestural UIs: there’s no physical controller to manipulate, so the basic affordances of the interface are invisible. MYO is just a featureless black armband. How are you supposed to know what snapping your fingers does with it – or that “snapping fingers” is a command that MYO can interpret in the first place? Read the manual, I guess. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that on principle.)
Lake confirmed that MYO will be pre-programmed with a small “menu” of gestural commands, much like a mouse can click, double-click, and scroll. That’s smart: since new users will have to read the manual anyway, it’s best not to inundate them with an intimidating glossary of complicated movements to memorize. Lake also said that MYO will not allow users to customize their own gestures, at least not at first. That seems a bit odd for an open-source device, but again, it’s probably a smart usability choice. You need to walk before you can run.
So will it catch on? Wearable computing is the new hotness, but I’m not sure a device like MYO will be knocking the mouse off its pedestal anytime soon. As the video aptly shows, MYO seems much more useful in very specific, intentional (as opposed to casual) applications. If you’re going to spend the next hour cooking a meal and you’d like to use your iPad at the same time, why not slip an armband on before you get started so you can control the touchscreen without getting chicken juice all over it? On principle, it’s no different than putting in a pair of earphones or connecting a bluetooth speaker. DJ’s, TED presenters, surgeons, soldiers – anyone who has to “suit up” in some regard before performing a technology-augmented task – might love MYO for the same reasons. It’s low-profile and silent, so it probably won’t get in the way of your work (or any other devices you may be manipulating). And taking depth cameras out of the equation simplifies things greatly, too: no more worrying about whether you’re staying within the camera’s “capture volume” or not.
But at the end of the day, MYO is still more Power Glove than Nike Fuelband. You’re not going to want to wear the thing when you’re not purposefully using it. But maybe that’ll work to MYO’s advantage. There’s something appealing about a wearable computing interface whose designers don’t assume you’re going to want it attached to you all the damn time (like Google Glass). Sure, it’s fun to be a cyborg sometimes. But maybe MYO’s savviest design feature is the fact that – like a pair of headphones – you’ll eventually want to take it off.
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