I touch my thumb to my index finger and the music on my computer stops playing. I bend my wrist outward and the song changes. This concept of controlling interfaces and devices with gestures isn't a new one. Movies like "Minority Report" and "Iron Man" have popularized the idea, but none of the products available today work quite like those in the movies.
You may already be familiar with Microsoft's Kinect sensor, which lets gamers use gestures to navigate the interface of the Xbox 360 and Xbox One . There's also the Leap Motion , a device that offers similar gesture capabilities on Windows and Mac computers. But these products share a common problem, they can't read your hand motions if you move away from the sensor. That's because the Leap Motion and the Kinect both use cameras to identify gestures.
Canadian startup Thalmic Labs came up with a unique approach with its Myo armband. Rather than cameras, the band uses low-energy Bluetooth and a collection of sensors to read the muscle movements within your forearm. The band can recognize pinches, wrist turns and other hand motions that it then translates into specific controls on your computer and smartphone.
I've used the Myo for the past month to control Netflix, PowerPoint presentations and Spotify. It's an interesting idea with a ton of potential, but it still has its kinks. There were just some gestures that simply didn't work, and ultimately it's still a niche product that a majority of consumers can get by without. This is especially true when you factor in the price. The Myo will run you $199. That's more than double the price of the Leap Motion and $50 more than the Kinect for the Xbox One. That price is roughly equivalent to £129 in the UK and AU$281 in Australia.
The Myo looks like a futuristic sweatband. It's relatively comfortable to wear, although it tends to leave marks on the arm if worn for an extended period of time. I personally like the look of it, but some of my colleagues felt differently. One joked that it looked like I had a bunch of 9-volt batteries strapped to my arm. That observation wasn't too far off.
The armband consists of eight rectangular blocks that are held together with a rubber casing. It's what's behind the blocks that is special, though. Each block contains what the company calls a "medical-grade" stainless-steel electromyography (EMG) sensor. This is used to read the electric impulses in the muscles on your forearm. To aid in measuring motion, there's also a three-axis gyroscope, a three-axis accelerometer and a three-axis magnetometer.
The Myo is said to last a full day with continued use, or up to a week in standby mode. Charging is done through a standard Micro-USB cable. The band also comes with 10 sizing clips that can be used to adjust it to ensure that it fits your forearm properly.
There's a significant learning period with the Myo. You won't be able to put it on and start playing around with gestures. You must first download the company's computer software. This includes easy-to-follow videos that will help you setup the Myo and learn the gestures. A small Bluetooth adapter is also included, which allows the armband to connect with Windows and Mac computers. The adapter is required even if your computer has Bluetooth built-in, which I found odd.
Once the band has been set up, it's time to learn the gestures. There are five basic ones: double-tap, spread fingers, wave right, wave left and make a fist. You can customize these to perform different actions on your computer. I also noticed a few double gestures, such as making a first and turning it clockwise to zoom in on your computer screen. Confused? You should be. I frequently found myself looking up what each gestures was.
I also had some difficulty getting the Myo to register my gestures and movements. It turns out that by default everyone uses Thalmic's own calibration profile. I figured out how to manually calibrate it and found the device to be more responsive.
I looked a bit ridiculous waving my hand in front of my computer, but ultimately I began to get the hang of it. The band worked best for me when controlling presentations in PowerPoint or Keynote. When I tried to use the Myo to control Netflix and Spotify on my computer, I found it to be a bit of a hassle. It's much easier using a mouse and keyboard for certain things.
I wouldn't spend $200 on a device solely for slideshow presentations. You can buy a simple clicker for a couple of bucks that could do the same, but the Myo is more than just a presentation tool. Thalmic Labs and a number of third-party developers have created more than a 100 apps that bring the Myo to life.
There's an app that lets you fly a Parrot drone with hand gestures and another for playing Minecraft, although it's more of gimmick than actually being practical. The Myo could appeal to bikers or extreme sports fanatics, though. There's an app that allows the armband to sync with GoPro cameras, letting you start and stop recordings with a simple gesture.
There's no doubt that the Myo has potential, but this isn't like Tony Stark in "Iron Man" or Tom Cruise's character in "Minority Report." At this point, the gestures are pretty basic. You can't pinch-and-zoom to resize images on your computer screen or conveniently grab a file and toss it in the trash can on your desktop.
Gestures may be useful one day, but as it stands right now, it's more convenient (and cheaper) to continue using my mouse and keyboard.