Y Combinator-Backed Thalmic Labs Introduces MYO, A $149 Armband For Gesture Control

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As stuff like Google Glass becomes mainstream, we’re going to see a lot more wearable computing devices around. But one thing that isn’t clear is how we’ll control them. One idea is to use gesture control, which would enable users to communicate with wearable computers without having to use a whole separate smartphone or other device to do so.

But so far, gesture control for most devices — like the Xbox Kinect, for instance — has depended upon cameras watching user movement. That means remaining in a fixed space and using pre-programmed gestures that are not exactly natural, but can be picked up by cameras. As a result, today’s gesture-control technologies are far from perfect. In fact, most to date are just downright bad.

Y Combinator-backed startup Thalmic Labs believes it has a better way of determining user intent when using gesture control. To do so, it’s developed a new device, called MYO, which is an armband worn around the forearm. Using Bluetooth, the armband can wirelessly connect to other devices, such as PCs and mobile phones, to enable user control based on their movements without directly touching the electronics.

Thalmic Labs was founded by University of Waterloo Mechatronics Engineering graduates Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey, and Stephen Lake. After leaving school, the three began collaborating on building the technology behind the Myo armband. Altogether, the company that they’ve built now has 11 employees.

“Before we graduated, we were interested in the area of wearable computing,” Lake told me. According to him, the team realized that a ton of research had been done on heads-up display technology, like the kind used in Google Glass. But there was a lot less energy placed on the technology used to control wearable computing devices. And so the founder set out to build it.

The first product they’ve developed is MYO, which uses a bunch of sensors and machine-learning technology to use the muscles in your forearm to determine what gestures users are making with their hands. Once it’s done that, users will be able to manipulate what’s happening on screen for different devices.

Sample applications of the technology involve being able to manipulate and edit slide presentations remotely. Users could also control wireless devices with the MYO armband — like for instance, the Sphero gaming ball. In the future, The Thalmic team hopes to enable control of stuff like Google Glass without actually touching the display.

For users, the armband will be available for pre-order for $149 at www.getmyo.com. But it’s not just end users that the team is trying to get on board — it’s also hoping to court developers, as well.

To do so, Thalmic Labs is introducing an API that will allow third-party developers to build applications that can take advantage of its gesture-control technology. The idea is to create a platform that will enable others to build their own applications based on MYO gesture control.

“We’re really interested in what third-party developers can do. Everyone we’ve talked to has a different idea for it,” Lake told me. The company is hoping to harness some of that creative energy to build things that it would have never thought of.

While it’s unclear how popular the MYO armband will actually be, Thalmic Labs hopes that other developers will help to create applications that make it more valuable. The company also appears to have some interesting IP that could be pretty valuable. It has already filed for a couple of patents, and has more filings on the way.

Thalmic Labs is currently part of the Y Combinator Winter 2013 class of startups, and has raised $1.1 million in seed funding. In addition to Y Combinator, that funding has come from investors such as ATI Technologies founder Lee Lau, HP Canada CEO Paul Tsaparis, Rypple co-founder Daniel Debow, and Dayforce CEO David Ossip.