Learn New Skills With Superhuman Speed

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

3 min read
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.

future report icon\r\n

“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.

human os icon

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.”

The Conversation (0)

IoT-ize Your Old Gadgets With a Mechanical Hijacking Device

This tiny connected manipulator can, its creators say, make any device smart

3 min read

An IoTIZER installed on dimmer switch

KAIST/Korea Polytechnic University
IoT

Just about every device you own is probably available with Internet connectivity. Whether or not every device you own actually needs Internet connectivity is up for debate. But if you want it, it's there—as long as you're able to afford it, of course. Connectivity usually comes at a premium, and it also usually involves buying a brand new whatever it is, because new hardware and software and services are required.

If connectivity is important to you, there aren't many options for older devices. It's not hard to turn them on and off with a connected socket adapter of some sort, but as you start to go back more than a few years, things become increasingly designed for direct human interaction rather than for the Internet, with buttons and switches and dials and whatnot.

IoTIZER is a prototype of a mechanical hijacking device (MHD), designed to replace human manipulation of existing products. As the name suggests, it can IoT-ize just about anything designed to be operated by a human, potentially giving a new connected life to your stuff.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Video Friday: Android Printing

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

4 min read

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We'll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far ( send us your events!):

RO-MAN 2021 – August 8-12, 2021 – [Online Event]

DARPA SubT Finals – September 21-23, 2021 – Louisville, KY, USA

WeRobot 2021 – September 23-25, 2021 – Coral Gables, FL, USA

IROS 2021 – September 27-1, 2021 – [Online Event]

ROSCon 2021 – October 21-23, 2021 – New Orleans, LA, USA

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Smart Manufacturing in Electronics NPI

Discover the latest simulations methods for electronics design and manufacturing

1 min read

Are you using the latest simulation tools for the development of electronics? This eBook documents the experiences of multiple companies and engineers as they improve the performance of electronics by using the latest simulation technology across a wide range of applications, including thermal analysis, structural dynamics, manufacturing, and more.

Trending Stories

The most-read stories on IEEE Spectrum right now