Myo Armband = Least Edgy Black Armband Ever

It may not be edgy, but I, like many others on the bleeding edge, am waiting with bated breath for the release of Thalmic Labs’ Myo Armband expected to ship later this year. Although I generally avoid buying products 6-9 months before they’ll be in my hot little hands, the prospect of remotely controlling a tablet, stereo, or household device with a subtle gesture was too much to pass up on. One pre-order later, I’m left biding my time before a surge of tech-powered midi-chlorians enter my veins.

Unlike Field of Dreams, often times awesome tech is built and no one comes – so the question I’m left pondering is who will use it, who will develop for it, and will it just be me and my 15,000 other geeks $150-poorer while waving our hands in the air with nary an app to hear us. Having some Objective C and other development experience under my belt I’m looking forward to building some of my own software to make use of the device, but I’m still confronted with the what and why of the device. What I want most is to solve real problems, rather than tear down strawmen with my $150 toy.  Here’s my list of less obvious personal and enterprise use cases so far, and some ideas for how it could further extended:

Use Case: Access Control

I’d like to have a secret handshake with my car… I’d love to be able to walk towards it and from ten feet away give two clicks of my fingers and have it unlock (though I’d want to be a little less cavalier with the ignition). If someone can build a library for Arduino, it shouldn’t be much harder to achieve than the various methods for RFID unlock already out there. I consider it to be superior to either RFID or a code combination because it combines control of a Bluetooth-paired token (the armband) with some private key-gesture.

Use Case: A Universal Software Keyboard

I don’t love keyboards without action, and certainly not those without any keys, but there is a place for a keyboard you can take anywhere that exists only as an app. A user could set a tablet down and hack out an urgent email using only the table of a coffee shop as a keyboard  no silly images of keyboard made by a laser, or a roll-up touch sensitive sheet – just your phone, two Myos, and your hands. A chorded keyboard application could cut the need to one armband, but those have never caught on among physical keyboards. The key boundaries would be fuzzy of course, but an intelligent app could figure out what you’re typing by considering finger extension and flexion with logical alternatives based on QWERTY key proximity.

Use Case: Handwriting Recognition

Depending on the level of precision, a Myo may provide more precise handwriting input than a touchscreen. Draw with a finger, a pen, or even a stick and the resulting movements would be read into a digital pen stroke.

Use Case: Dog Training

Clicker-training for dogs is kind of a thing now. But let’s lose the clicker: I snap my fingers and a receiver on my dog’s collar emits the click. Better yet, the click is a quiet ultrasonic noise that humans can’t even hear. Smirk as other dog hikers’ jaws drop when my dog runs to me and heels without me even gesturing to or looking at him. The ultrasonic tones could even be rhythmic or pitched in such as way as to give multiple distinct command-gestures. It could be particularly useful for work dogs on farms, rescue operations, or tactical scenarios which may take dogs far from their handlers.

Use Case: Dynamic Household Lighting

As a Bluetooth device, it could be paired with an array of sensors in the home to turn lights on and off as you migrate through your home. Gestures could override the defaults or adjust a dimmer switch.

Use Case: Sign-language Translation

I can imagine (and now that I think of it may go build) a Myo Armband paired with an iOS app that synthesizes speech based on the detected gestures. It’s a perfect use case – a combination of gross arm movements and fine finger movements that other tools aren’t equipped to detect. It could also easily be used as a type of speech-to-text for signing that I have to believe would crush any 16-year old’s texting ability.

Use Case: Control for Robotic Surgery

Robotic surgery is pretty awesome, and as I’m no surgeon it’s possible things are just fine as they are today, but the controls of robotic surgery equipment make it look like you’re shaking hands with a Terminator. A sufficiently precise variant of a Myo Armband may be a more natural and more-easily trained method of driving these surgical robots.

Extension: Pair with Kinect for Spatially-aware Commands

Similar to the Leap Motion Controller, Myo’s power is in its ability to read fine gestures. Yes it can apparently read your exploding first bump or your jumping jack with the built-in accelerometers, but the muscle detection is its secret sauce. The marketing materials for Myo show some great around-the-house use cases like pausing a recipe video, or turning up music, and while perhaps we’ll discover that the armband can control multiple devices at once, they likely can’t have overlapping gestures  for instance, a swipe to the right could flip the page of a digital recipe on my iPad but would also be a convenient gesture for changing the TV channel or lowering volume.

By integrating the device with a Kinect which provides spatial awareness, the combined solution would be smart enough to recognize that the user is extending his/her arm toward the TV, and likely want to interface exclusively with that object for the moment. As the user turns toward the kitchen counter it can direct its commands to an iPad, or perhaps default there in the absence of a clearly overriding gesture.

Extension: Pair with Seamless Output

I don’t mean that the Myo Armband should have any output functionality of its own (other than perhaps haptic feedback), but in terms of use with any mobile device it needs to be paired with output methods that are as seamless and unobtrusive. What is the point in clicking your fingers to answer a call if you still have to fish the phone out of your pocket to actually speak and listen? Yes, I could wear a Jawbone all the time, but then what would become of society?

As I’ll discuss in other posts, I’m particularly excited by integrated output solutions. Google Glass is an interesting start down that road, even though I’m not quite on that train yet (if anything because of Google Glass’s input functionality, read: panopticon). In fact, of all of Google Glass’s features I’m most excited by the anticipated use of bone conduction audio (see FCC filings), which provide audio output without having to wear something in your ear and blocking environmental noises. If you’ve ever had a hearing test its includes bone conductive hearing, and some consumer products already make use of the method (e.g., headphones for swimmers). This is all to say that bone conductive audio, if packaged in a convenient format, would be a perfect partner to something like Myo – seamless input and output without the need to reach into your pocket and pull out a device.

More thoughts to come…

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