The glove looks humdrum, like a garment you might pick up at a sporting-goods store. It’s made of soft black leather and fingerless, like a cyclist’s or weightlifter’s glove. The similarity is, however, deceiving.
“I have a glove that can teach you how to play a piano melody,” Thad Starner declares when I call to chat about the future of wearable computing. Now a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the technical lead of Google Glass, he helped pioneer the field in the 1990s as a student at MIT. “During this conversation, you could have learned ‘Amazing Grace.’ ”
“Really?” I say. “While we’re talking?”
“Sure,” he says and invites me to Atlanta to see for myself.
Caitlyn Seim, a Ph.D student, slips the glove onto my hand. Inside each of the five finger holes she has sewn a flat vibration motor. The five tiny vibrators, which perch atop my digits like gemstones on rings, are wired to a microcontroller on the back of my hand. Seim has programmed it to fire the motors in the same sequence that my fingers would strike keys on a piano.
But she doesn’t tell me which tune I’ll be learning. “You’ll just feel a little buzzing,” she says, flipping on the electronics. Then Starner whisks me away to show off his lab’s myriad other projects: a language-translation app for Google Glass, a magnetic tongue implant for voicing silent commands to a computer, a smart vest to help divers communicate with dolphins, smart chew toys to help police dogs communicate with handlers, and all manner of other wonderfully wacky wearables.
Once every minute for the next 2 hours, the motors in the glove vibrate across my fingers. I try to figure out the pattern: buzz…middle finger...buzz…ring fin…buzz…buzz…ger...buzz…uh…buzz…buzz…crap. “IMPOSSIBLE,” I write in my notebook.
At last, Starner escorts me to a keyboard. He plays the first passage of a song—15 notes that the glove has supposedly taught me. I recognize the tune. It’s Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I take off the glove.
“Start here,” Starner says, hitting the first note. I lay my fingers on the keys. Middle finger…middle finger…ring finger… “I don’t know,” I say, embarrassed.
“Don’t think about it,” Starner says.
I start again. Middle…middle…ring…pinky…pinky…ring…middle…pointer…. “This is crazy!” I say, still playing. And I don’t stop. I finish the first passage, then play the second, and start into the third.
“Now, hold on!” Starner interjects. “Have you played this before?”
“Never,” I say. It’s true—I never took piano lessons. Befuddled, he inspects the glove and discovers it’s been programmed to vibrate all four phrases of the song—61 notes, not 15. Typically, he explains, he and his students teach only one phrase at a time. I approach the keyboard again. I fumble a few tries—I’m learning, after all—but within minutes, I can play the melody perfectly. I feel giddy, like I’ve just discovered an innate talent I never knew I had.
“You just know what to do—it’s insane,” Seim notes. She recently taught herself to play “Ode to Joy” by wearing the glove while writing an application for a research grant. “It’s almost like watching a phantom hand.”
Starner and his colleagues believe that the repeated buzzing from the glove creates a muscle memory that enables a wearer to learn to play a song with far less practice than it would take without haptic stimulation. They have also studied the glove’s effect on people with spinal cord injuries and found that it can help them regain some sensation and dexterity in their hands. The researchers are now beginning experiments to test whether haptic gloves can teach braille typing and stenography—evidence that the technology could impart not just patterns but also language.
“We don’t know the limits,” Starner says. “Can we put these sorts of vibration motors on people’s legs and teach them how to dance? Can we teach people how to throw a better baseball?” He mentions a scene from the sci-fi thriller The Matrix in which the film’s heroes, Neo and Trinity, hijack a helicopter: “Can you fly that thing?” Neo asks his right-hand woman. “Not yet,” she says. The film cuts to Trinity’s eyelids flickering as the knowledge pours through a data port at the back of her skull. Seconds later they’re in the air.
“Of course you can’t do that,” I say.
Starner grins. “Not yet.”
For more on the future of wearable computers see “Wearable Computers Will Transform Language.”