At ICRA last year, JPL presented a robotic control system called the BioSleeve, which is a sensor-packed bandage that wraps around your arm and lets you control robots with movements and gestures. It's essentially a gesture recognition system that works independently of any external sensors (like cameras or motion capture systems), meaning that you can use it in a variety of positions and in just about any location that you happen to be, like outside, or in space.
The problem with hardware like this is we all know that it's going to be a long long long long looong time before something that works in a lab at JPL finds its way onto our arms as consumers. But you know what? That's perfectly fine, because a Canadian startup called Thalmic Labs has its own wearable gesture sensing peripheral that's about to hit the consumer market, and we got to check it out last month at CES.
The Myo is built around eight EMG (electromyography) muscle activity sensors along with a nine-axis inertial measurement unit (that's three axes each for accelerometer, gyro, and magnetometer), meaning that you get forearm gesture sensing along with relative motion sensing (as opposed to absolute position). The EMG sensors pick up on the electrical potential generated by muscle cells, and with the Myo on your forearm, the sensors can read all of the muscles that control your fingers, letting them spy on finger position as well as grip strength.
Also somehow stuffed into the Myo armband (the final consumer version will be about half as thick as the developer version in the video) is a rechargeable lithium battery (good for "multi-day usage"), an ARM processor, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, a micro USB port for charging, and wireless compatibility with PCs, Macs, iOS, and Android. Open source APIs enable even more versatility.
For most users, getting the Myo to work will be as simple as slipping it on your arm and making gestures, a set of which will be preprogrammed into the device. To keep you from accidentally gesturing yourself into oblivion, there's a unique on/off gesture to enable or disable the armband. You'll be able to map gestures to commands on your computer just like a keyboard: in a video game context, for example, instead of using your mouse button to fire a gun, you can use your trigger finger. Or instead of hitting "R" to reload, you can raise your arm and make a physical gun reloading motion. For extra degrees of freedom, wear a second Myo on your other arm, too.
As for robotics, the big advantage of systems like Myo (or JPL's BioSleeve) is that it doesn't require external infrastructure or a controller that you have to hold onto, keep track of, and otherwise be careful with. With a wearable control system, you can keep it on all the time, and instantly activate it with a gesture. It's simple and intuitive and can be operated with a minimal amount of training, but at the same time, is versatile enough to control a wide variety of robots. But there's a trade-off: Neither the Myo or the BioSleeve might offer the extra-fine level of control that you can get with something more traditional (like a PS3 controller). As robotic autonomy increases, though, reliance on high-level commands will become the norm, and that's what things like the Myo are likely best at.
Thalmic is planning to ship consumer Myo units by the middle of this year, and you can pre-order them for $150.
[ Thalmic Labs ]
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan’s work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR’s Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.