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Redefining Mobile: Startup Creates James Bond-Worthy Gadgets

The Myo armband can control a computer from across the room, and it's just the beginning of what Thalmic Labs has planned.
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Imagine James Bond slipping an armband under his tuxedo jacket and using it to control a computer across the room, or even a spy drone.

At Thalmic Labs, 007's device is a reality. The Waterloo, Ontario, firm began taking preorders for its Myo armband earlier this year with the goal of creating the next step in computer control. It works by picking up electrical activity in the muscles of the forearm--specifically the movements that control the fingers and wrist as they gesticulate--and translating them into commands.

Thalmic co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake says the Myo's advantage over motion-capture devices such as the Leap Motion Controller and Microsoft's Kinect is that users don't have to wave their hands in front of a camera. Cameras, he points out, require either a large workspace, in which only exaggerated movements can be detected, or a confined workspace, in which fine movements (such as surgery) can be detected. The Myo, however, can read big arm motions and subtle finger gestures, and the user doesn't have to stay in one particular place.

"What we're most interested in," Lake says, "is the next evolution of smart devices--in getting away from sitting in front of a computer."

For now the Myo's applications involve substituting the armband for existing controllers--turning up the volume on a computer, controlling a weapon in a video game, running through a slide show with flicks of the wrist. "We've also played with things like the Sphero robotic ball and a remote-controlled helicopter drone," Lake says.

But that's child's play. Lake and partners Aaron Grant and Matthew Bailey, all of whom have backgrounds in mechatronics engineering, are dreaming of the unexpected, releasing an open-source API this summer to see what happens. Their hope is to replicate Apple's success with its mobile iOS system and allow millions of developers to come up with original uses for the Myo in conjunction with the iPhone and iPad.

Lake has visions of the Myo packaged with other devices to create entirely new systems, much the way Nike's iOS apps work with sensors in the company's shoes. While he declines to name companies that have approached him about teaming up, Lake claims to have had interest from the gaming and entertainment industries, as well as from military units.

But Lake sees this initial attention as the tip of the iceberg. "How does the Myo change what a mobile device can become?" he asks. "Who knows? Maybe someone will build a kind of fully immersive environment that tracks the movements of someone's legs, fingers, toes, head and everything else."