What can the Myo armband ACTUALLY do?

It’s a tricky question. What can the Myo armband do period, or what can it do today?

You get two very different answers.

Today

Today, the Myo armband is like a shortcut between your brain and technology. Literally and metaphorically: it’ll save you time, but it also “shortcuts” your hands by reading electrical signals from your brain while they’re still in your arm. It’s like making a thought into a command for a device.

Combining five distinct poses — wave left, wave right, spread fingers, fist, and thumb-to-pinky — with motion, the Myo armband turns your hand into a controller for technology.

Straight out of the box, it will control Netflix, VLC Media Player, and iTunes on your computer remotely; it controls Parrot.AR drones and Sphero toys; it can remotely control smarthome technologies; it can control presentation software, like PowerPoint, Keynote and Adobe Acrobat; and it can control music playback on Android and iOS phones and tablets with a Bluetooth Smart connection.

The day you plug it in, it will show you a brand new way to interact with technology. The really remarkable part is that developers haven’t even really had a crack at it yet. Once they unleash their imaginations on the Myo Market building applications, sky’s the limit.

People sometimes wonder why the Myo armband only recognizes five poses of the millions your hand could make.

There are two answers. First, it’s really, really hard to recognize gestures on each individual person’s arm. The muscular and skeletal structure of every arm is unique: what looks like “spread fingers” in one arm might look like “rock on” fingers in another, and so on. Also, the Myo armband needs to be able to work at any position and any orientation on your arm: you should be able to deliver a presentation, slip it off, hand it to the next person (at a different position and upside down) and have it work perfectly for them after a good sync gesture. Anyone reading this who has worked with EMG at all knows how absurdly difficult this task is. Getting clean, successful readings from EMG sensors is a challenge even in stable hospital environments; and recall that when you get an actual EMG reading at a hospital they shave your skin and apply a conductive gel. When nurses and doctors control a device with the Myo armband, they make this face:

Y’all EMG wizards or something?

So that’s the first reason: classification. Getting the Myo armband to know exactly what you’re telling it without reading “false positives” (when it registers a gesture you didn’t meant to make) is a huge job at Thalmic Labs. The mathematical geniuses here have built a war room just to tackle this, and they basically live in there surrounded by equations. And pizza boxes.

This is a short term problem. Now that we’re shipping Myo armbands to more customers, and as they share gesture data with us, recognition gets better every day. Small arms, hairy arms, arms that climb on rocks: we’re learning more about how they work and optimizing the Myo armband to read them.

This is another of the many reasons we love our developer community so much. They’ve been dealing with all the early challenges that accompany bringing a completely new invention to the world, and through their applications are creating a computing ecosystem ripe for gesture control. Their patience, imagination, feedback, and data have been invaluable as we improve the Myo armband. Particularly their patience.

How we feel about developers.

The second reason has nothing to do with the Myo armband. It’s about the world.

Look at the controllers around you today. What do you see? Probably something sort of boxy with buttons on it, right?

Nailed it.

Which looks very, very different from this:

Very atypical controller.

That is the gap we’re bridging today. Our job is to make your hand control a bunch of devices all designed to talk to box-remotes. It’s tough, because your hand has a distinct lack of buttons.

Our version of a button is a gesture. They’re simple, on-off inputs that a computer can understand. Either you’re making the gesture or you aren’t. Netflix gets that.

But this just isn’t the best use of your hand as a remote. It’s what lets the Myo armband talk to current technologies in a way they understand.

But what if your computer was designed to read Myo armband data instead of box-remote commands? What if your music player knew it was talking to your hands?

Tomorrow

Ken Olson said it best in 1977: “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

Or was it Steve Ballmer in his 2007 interview saying “there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

The point is that making predictions about the future impact of a piece of technology is a fool’s game. Let’s stick to the facts.

Fundamentally, the Myo armband reads EMG data from the muscles in your forearm and your arm’s orientation in space. It’s a tool, like a paintbrush or a hammer; what can be done with it it is limited only by human skill and imagination.

An idea like the Myo armband comes into the world so far ahead of the curve that it takes time to discover just what it can do. Heck, they invented the internet to share theoretical physics data and ended up forever changing the relationship between humans and cats. Occasionally someone at Thalmic Labs will offhandedly ask “wait, could we do x?” and spur a whole new avenue of research.

Here’s an example: at a recent Hackathon we saw an application called Tremedic. A quick hack, made in 36 hours, the Tremedic team didn’t use the Myo armband for gesture control at all. They realized that the device required users to wear eight hospital-grade sensors all day, and that alone was valuable. They wrote a program that measured tremors in a patient’s arm over time: a Parkinson’s sufferer could slip a Myo armband on in the morning and feed vital data to their physician throughout the day. This would help in diagnosis, emergency services, monitoring, treatment… It’s a massively useful resource for Parkinson’s research. Just thinking about the Myo armband in a different way lets you imagine hundreds of new uses.

As we collect data that improves the gesture recognition of the Myo armband, and as brilliant minds from around the world discover it and what it can do, the list of uses will explode.

So the Myo armband today reads motion and five gestures, and can be used as a very sophisticated controller for things like media, music creation, home automation, gaming, smartphones and smartglasses, etc. It provides remote control for people with occupied hands, like doctors or people who work in gloves, or in noisy environments like on a factory floor where voice control is useless.

As for the future, no one knows. Not even us. There’s never been anything like the Myo armband before, and when the world catches up to what it makes possible we’ll have a generation of science fiction technology the likes of which our world has never seen.

We can’t wait for the new frontier. What excites you most about a future where you wear your computer and control things with your hands?

Image sources: 1, 2, 3.

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