Wave of the future? Thalmic sees huge application potential with gesture control armband

This week Thalmic Labs’ Myo armband, designed to bridge the distance between man and machine, began to be sold through Amazon. Brent Balinski spoke to the company’s Chris Goodine about what the Myo offers, what it might be able to do in the future – including in factories – and why assembling locally is vital to Thalmic.  

“It’s a very unique process to build something like this,” explained Chris Goodine, Developer Evangelist at Waterloo, Canada-based wearable tech company Thalmic.

“It’s not something that we outsource right now and don’t want to outsource it yet and don’t know if we ever will.”

On March 2, Thalmic’s flagship product, the Myo armband, was made available to regular consumers (through amazon.com).

When we spoke to Godine at SolidWorks World 2015 last month, Thalmic had delivered 40,000 of 50,000 pre-orders (though all of the remainder have since been shipped). Pre-orders were the only way of buying a Myo until this week.

The Myo (Greek for “muscle”) measures EMG (electromyographic) signals and nine axes of motion from a wearer’s arm, using this to control a connected electronic device such as a smartphone or computer.

It recognises five types of hand gestures and, once installed and configured, allows a connected device to act like "an extension of" the user's body.

“That electrical signal that tells the muscle to contract, is actually propagated to the surface of your skin – and you can pick it up with an electrical sensor,” Goodine told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“So that’s all it is: it’s just literally a small electrical impulse that we detect at the surface of your skin that happens only when your muscles flex.”

Thalmic Labs was founded by three University of Waterloo mechatronics engineering graduates in 2012. It received $US 1.1 million in seed funding from the Y Combinator start-up incubator organisation.

Following this, Thalmic released a hugely popular promotional video in February 2013, displaying the armband being put to use to do things such as pilot a drone, control the volume of a song, play a videogame, and control an instructional cooking video.

All these actions are performed by a wearer’s gestures and linked to a Windows or Mac (via a Bluetooth USB adapter) computer or to an iOS or Android device (via Bluetooth LE).

The promo video saw a huge buzz generated, with pre-orders reaching 10,000 just two days later, according to the company, and additional venture capital backing worth $US 14.5 million being achieved in June that year.

Over 10,000 third parties applied to be a part of the Myo developer program.

The app possibilities are huge, according to Godine, ranging from medical to industrial to leisure and beyond.

“There’s a lot of people out there who are exploring that raw EMG data… Say they want to detect the early Parkinson’s twitch that happens after your medication fades away or maybe tracking your muscle fitness as you’re working out,” Goodine offered.

“Or maybe like a real-time coach: if you’re an archer and your muscle activity is too tense, maybe you can get some sort of feedback saying you’ve got to position your hand in some other way, these muscles are activated but shouldn’t be. These are the things that we’re seeing now that we’ve introduced a sensor that’s commercial and accessible by so many people.”

Partnerships with smartglass makers such as Google Glass and Epson Moverio and software developers including APX and Augmedix were announced in August last year.

As well as integrating with smartglasses for applications such as accessing medical diagrams, hands-free, in surgery, there is great potential in industrial settings.

Any situation where being able to monitor live feedback and have access to documents, in real-time (and while a worker’s hands are busy on a task) could be one where Myo used in combination with smartglasses would be handy.

What about collaborating with and controlling a robot worker, using gestures, for example in a dangerous location?

“Basically, yes, the whole autonomous robot space, that’s growing and existing, and you can tap into that,” said Goodine.

“So this sensor can talk to the internet, can talk to operating systems, so it can talk to a robotic system like that. And I’ve seen it before where robotic arms are controlled by the movement of your arm.

“When you make a fist, that robotic hand will close, and similarly, when you open your hand it’ll open back up again. So yes, that is a very cool use case.”

Thalmic has grown to employ over 50, and manufactures onsite for reasons including strict quality control.

“When you’re introducing a product like this, there’s a lot of parts in here that are brand new and that aren’t necessarily off the shelf – they’re all custom,” said Godine.

“It likely works best when you have something that has a little bit more training in that field, it’s something that people have done often. In this case, because it’s such a new technology and we don’t really find that it could work very well overseas.”

A portion of the company’s workforce has come from BlackBerry Limited (formerly Research In Motion or RIM), also based in Waterloo, southern Ontario. The company’s CFO and VP of Manufacturing are both ex-BlackBerry, for example.

The company – which has no less a goal than changing the way human beings interact with computing devices – believes that people will continue to benefit more and better wearable devices.

Technology in the fast-growing market will improve as it becomes more aware of its user’s unique situation, said Goodine.  

“So your Fitbit understands your activity [for example] but you can get these other sensors onboard you that understand who you are; you also have technologies that output this information in the wearable space – I’m talking Google Glass here,” he said.

“There are points in that space though where you’re going to need to interact. You can’t completely eliminate the human element. Yes, the technology is there to serve you, but you still want to control it, and the human interaction is going to be possible due to products like this.”

Click here for Myo’s specs and compatibility requirements and here for the device’s Amazon listing.

Manufacturers’ Monthly attended SolidWorks World 2015 as a guest of Dassault Systemes.