Myo gesture control armband augments prosthetic arm

Can gesture-based wearables improve the control of future prosthetic limbs?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Thalmic Labs has released footage revealing how the company's Myo armband is being used in prosthetic limb research.

At the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in the US, the team behind Myo -- an armband which recognizes gestures to control a variety of devices -- is now working with researchers on ways to incorporate the armband into the prosthetics industry.

The Myo armband reads electromyographic pulses (EMC) caused by skeletal muscles. If you decide to turn your hand left or right, for example, the muscles in your arm flex to complete the move. The armband then reads these movements, divines the intent of the user, and acts in turn.

When ZDNet tried out the Myo armband last year, we found there was a lot of potential hidden within the wearable device. The armband is chunky and not necessarily comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and at least, at the moment, suits male wearers or those with larger muscles better.

However, the $199 armband is easy to use and set up to control devices including PCs, music libraries and presentations.

At the time of the review, ZDNet found that the gesture control element needs improvement, and we're waiting to hear from the team as to whether the gesture recognition has undergone any improvement since November 2015.

However, this does not mean the armband does not have its uses -- as experiments in the prosthetics realm may prove.

See also: Myo Gesture Control Armband: Hands free control for your devices

In the video below, Johnny Matheny, who lost his forearm due to cancer in 2008, is experimenting with the Myo armband to control his prosthetic arm. The patient wears two of the devices on his upper arm, which read the EMC signals from the artificial arm -- attached directly to his skeleton -- and sends these signals to a waiting computer.

The PC then analyzes these signals and attempts to determine which movement he is trying to make, before sending the analysis back to the prosthetic arm.

The use of external wearables in controlling today's more advanced prosthetic limbs is an interesting one. While the use of Myo, in this case, is not perfect -- as a nearby computer must do the calculations -- further research could potentially circumvent these issues.

Wearables have their place in the consumer industry thanks to fitness trackers and smart watches, but the application of wearable technology in areas such as prosthetics has untapped potential.

In the meantime, Matheny appears delighted with the research, saying in the video that the arm is the most "unique" arm he's ever worn, with the "ability to do anything that your natural hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder can do."

Stephen Lake, Co-founder and CEO of Thalmic Labs commented:

"If Johnny's case shows it is possible to directly turn thoughts into actions, then the future of human-computer interaction can achieve a new reality. While each person's arm and mind may be different, this is an incredible example of how scientists, developers and engineers around the world have transformed lives using the Myo armband.

That is why we have opened the SDK to third party developers to continue expanding applications users are interested in."

ZDNet has reached out to Thalmic Labs with questions and will update if we hear back.

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