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Learn New Skills With Superhuman Speed

Wearable computers could provide the muscle memory to learn guitar chords or dance steps

3 min read
Photo of a hand with wearable computer.
Good Vibrations: By activating tiny vibration motors in its fingertips, the Mobile Music Touch glove speeds up the process of learning to play a piano melody.
Photo: Georgia Tech

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.

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“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.

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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 fingermiddle fingerring 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.”

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New Pixel Sensors Bring Their Own Compute

Atomically thin devices that combine sensing and computation also save power

2 min read
close up image of a chip

This optical image shows the 900-pixel 2D active pixel sensor created by the researchers.

Akhil Dodda, Darsith Jayachandran, and Saptarshi Das

By giving compute powers to atomically thin versions of the CMOS sensors now found in most digital cameras, a prototype sensor array can capture images using thousands to millions of times less power, a new study finds.

CMOS sensors are a kind of active pixel sensor, which combine a light detector with one or more transistors. Although scientists have made steady progress toward more energy-efficient light detectors, the signal-conversion and data-transmission capabilities of active pixel sensors are currently extremely energy-inefficient, says study colead author Akhil Dodda, an electronics engineer who was at Penn State University at University Park, in Pennsylvania, at the time of the research.

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John Bardeen’s Terrific Transistorized Music Box

This simple gadget showed off the magic of the first transistor

5 min read
 A small electronic gadget encased in clear plastic has a speaker and some buttons.

This music box demonstrated the portability and responsiveness of the point-contact transistor.

The Spurlock Museum/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

On 16 December 1947, after months of work and refinement, the Bell Labs physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain completed their critical experiment proving the effectiveness of the point-contact transistor. Six months later, Bell Labs gave a demonstration to officials from the U.S. military, who chose not to classify the technology because of its potentially broad applications. The following week, news of the transistor was released to the press. The New York Herald Tribune predicted that it would cause a revolution in the electronics industry. It did.

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Get the Rohde & Schwarz EMI White Paper

Learn how to measure and reduce common mode electromagnetic interference (EMI) in electric drive installations

1 min read
Rohde & Schwarz

Nowadays, electric machines are often driven by power electronic converters. Even though the use of converters brings with it a variety of advantages, common mode (CM) signals are a frequent problem in many installations. Common mode voltages induced by the converter drive common mode currents damage the motor bearings over time and significantly reduce the lifetime of the drive.

Download this free whitepaper now!

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