by Al Sacco

Hands on with Thalmic Labs’ Myo gesture control armband

Jun 15, 2015

Thalmic's futuristic Myo armband is designed to let you control a set of popular applications, games and presentations with simple gestures, but its real value may be as a hands-free input source for next-generation wearables.

Today’s world of wearable technology is packed with gimmicky gizmos designed to grab eyeballs and then quietly fade into cyberspace. Companies such as Thalmic Labs are working to cut through the noise and develop useful, innovative gadgets that demonstrate the promise of wearables to consumers and enterprises.

Thalmic’s unique new Myo “gesture control armband,” is exactly what it sounds like: a band you wear around your forearm that lets you control various applications with a half dozen basic arm and hand gestures. It uses electromyography (EMG) to measure the electricity that runs through your muscles as they shift and contract as well as your movement. It then translates the gestures into commands.

Today, the company offers a basic application, called Myo for Presentations, which lets you use gestures to control Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote slide shows, as well as a few Connectors designed to give you gesture control over iTunes, Spotify and a PC game called “Race the Sun.” The Myo Market also contains Connectors from third-party developers.

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I’ve had Myo for a few weeks now, and though I’ve primarily used it along with PowerPoint and Keynote to navigate through slide shows, I also tested it with iTunes on my Mac, the music app on my iPhone, and a totally useless-yet-admittedly amusing, third-party whip simulation game on my Samsung GS6 edge Android phone.

It took me a while to get the hang of Myo, and I’ve had some bad luck with its third-party Connectors. The company also has some significant challenges to overcome, but Thalmic is onto something with the concept of Myo and the device shows genuine potential. Here’s a quick breakdown of what currently works with Myo, what needs more work and a quick conclusion. (Hit that conclusion link if you want to skip my longwinded elucidation on everything Myo.)

Thalmic Myo review: What works

The Myo armband is composed of eight small plastic rectangles, with metal sensors on their undersides that are connected with a durable plastic band. The one-size-fits-all band slides over your wrist and onto the thickest part of your forearm, so those sensors sit firmly against your skin when in use. It’s futuristic and funky-looking, and it will likely draw attention if you wear it exposed, but it also works beneath a loose fitting shirt or jacket, according to Thalmic.

Myo is available in both black and white color options. Overall, the hardware is sleek, light and functional, though the rectangles are a bit clunky and could be slightly thinner. 

The initial setup process is fairly simple, and it consists of a basic sync gesture that helps calibrate the band. Thalmic needs to warm up before it can collect accurate readings, so you need to wear the band for a few minutes prior to using it. When it’s ready, you flex your wrist outward and then continue moving your arm in a similar arc to complete the sync gesture. Then you calibrate five basic movements: a double-tap of the thumb and middle finger; an inward wave of your hand; outward hand wave; a firmly closed fist; and a wide open palm. You can also rotate your closed fist clockwise and counter clockwise to trigger certain actions. And Myo vibrates when it detects a gesture command.

thalmic myo armband wearable technology gestures 2 Thalmic Labs

You need to calibrate your Myo profile only once, but you need to perform the basic sync gesture every time you start to use it. Myo uses only five basic gestures so it doesn’t take long to memorize the movements. However, they can get confusing if you use multiple applications regularly, because gesture commands vary by application.

A Thalmic logo LED on one of the rectangles lets you know which side should face up and uses different light patterns to convey connection status. Another thin LED atop the logo shows a blue light that slowly fades in and out when you need to sync and flashes if it needs to warm up; it glows a steady blue when it’s charged and connected via Bluetooth; it lights up solid orange if it needs to be charged or is charging; and a green light shows when it’s plugged in and fully powered up. Myo charges via micro USB, and it gets good battery life. I used it continuously for an hour multiple times, and the status indicator never turned from blue to orange to signal low battery.

While Myo’s current value is mostly in presenting and remotely controlling specific mobile and desktop apps, as well keyboard functions, its potential as an input system for the future wearables is where it could really shine. For example, Myo already works as hands-free controller for smartglasses. I wasn’t able to test that application, but the basic presenter controls and Connectors I used seem like just a glimpse of what Myo could eventually do.

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And it works with a wide variety of devices, including Windows PCs (Windows 7 and above and OpenGL 2.1 and above) and Macs (OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and above), as well as iOS (most newer devices running iOS 7 and up) and Android (v4.3 “Jelly Bean” and up) smartphones and tablets.

Myo is far from perfect, however, and I also have a number of gripes …

Thalmic Myo review: What needs works

When using Myo for Presentations, I frequently have to preform gestures more than once to trigger commands, which draws attention from the task at hand and can be frustrating. By closing your fist you can trigger a pointer function to draw attention to specific sections of your slides. However, the vertical controls are inconsistent. Sometimes a slow lift of my hands moves the red pointer dot upward as expected, other times it shifts the dot down in the opposite direction, which is confusing and counterintuitive. I experimented with the band and its settings in an effort to figure out the issue to no avail.

I also move my hands quite a bit when I talk, especially if I’m trying to demonstrate something with conviction, and on a few occasions, I accidently triggered different Myo functions. This made me think about standing still and not moving my hands or arms too much, which ultimately distracted me from the presentation I was making.

Myo connects to your computer using Bluetooth Low Energy (LE), and it needs a special USB dongle. A few times Myo lost its connection when I walked around my office and something came between me and the connected USB dongle. This could be an issue for people who move around a lot during presentations. 

I also had trouble starting Myo. Sometimes it just wouldn’t work even though the Myo Connect app told me it was connected and the armband status indicator glowed solid blue, which means it’s connected.

Myo works along with a desktop app called Myo Connect, which includes a number of options, including an Armband manager that lets you calibrate and modify gesture settings and an Application Manager that is designed to activate and disable individual apps and Connectors. Myo works only within the active window on your computer, and you cannot switch between windows or apps remotely, so you can use only Myo app or Connector at a time.

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I mostly focused on Myo for Presentations, but I also experimented with other Connectors that let you control popular applications using Myo gestures. For example, I downloaded a Connector from the Myo Market, or Myo app store, called Handy Browser, which lets you perform basic browser functions in Chrome and Firefox. And I tested the Myo iTunes Connector that controls basic media player functions from afar. In both cases, I had to frequently repeat gestures for them to work, and though Connectors are interesting at first, they’re mostly a novelty for me.

You also have to disconnect the Myo USB dongle if you want to use the armband with another device, such as a phone or tablet, when you’re close to your computer and then you need to manually disconnect your Bluetooth connection to those mobile devices if you want to connect to the USB dongle again. In other words, Myo makes you jump through a number of hurdles to get it to work.

You can also use Myo’s Keyboard Mapper function to create custom Connectors that trigger certain keyboard commands on your computer. I created a Connector for Microsoft Word that was supposed to let me save documents and open new ones using gestures, but I couldn’t get it to work.

My forearms are on the large side, and I found Myo to be somewhat uncomfortable after wearing it for a while. Myo has to fit snuggly to function, but it left angry red marks on my arm after 30 minutes of use. The company provides small pins that you can use to tighten the band if you have smaller forearms, but I obviously wasn’t able to test them. The one-size-fits-all approach isn’t ideal for Myo in its current incantation.

Finally, Myo costs $199, which is a bit pricey for what is basically a newfangled presenter tool with a built-in laser pointer.

To sum that all up ….

Thalmic Myo review: Conclusion

New input methods will play an important role in the evolution of wearable technology because traditional keyboard and touch-screen based input systems just don’t work well with certain types of gadgets, including smartglasses and smartwatches.

I appreciate the concept behind Myo. The band itself is durable, well-designed and reasonably fashionable. After you find or create a calibration profile that works for you, it usually recognizes the basic gesture controls, and its multi-color LED clearly displays simple connection and battery status information. 

That said, it is difficult for me to recommend Myo at this point, because it simply doesn’t do all that much. It’s also finicky; it sometimes won’t work at all; it doesn’t always recognize basic gestures, it often reads other normal movements as gesture commands, and the laser-pointer feature occasionally moves in the opposite direction than it should.

thalmic myo armband wearable technology gestures Thalmic Labs

For Myo to be effective as a presentation tool, it needs to be super simple — stupid simple. If it draws even a little bit of the presenter’s attention away from the task at hand, it lessens that person’s effectiveness and disconnects them from their audience. Myo is just not reliable enough for me to want to use it in a high-pressure presentation situation.

Also, let’s be honest, it’s really not all that hard to use a clicker tool with a built-in laser pointer during presentations, and $200 is on the pricey side.

Myo is still a new, relatively unpolished device, and though it’s largely focused on presentation controls and simple gesture commands for popular applications today, gestures could be one of the next big input systems of the future. So while Myo’s current value is limited, it could become an indispensible hands-free tool in the future.

You can learn more about the Myo gesture control armband on Thalmic Labs’ website.