“Have you ever seen the Matrix?” Thad Starner excitedly asks me over the phone. “There’s that scene where they need to fly a helicopter and Trinity just says, “hang on” and then uploads the instructions to her brain. That’s the future of what I’m doing.”
What started as a wearable experiment for the Georgia Tech professor could possibly make anyone a master at guitar, piano, Braille or even dance steps at superhuman speed.
All you have to do to play like Beethoven, Starner tells me, is slip on this glove he’s made called the Mobile Music Touch and it’s just bzzz, bzzz bzzz… bzzz bzzz…bzzz bzzz buh bzzz bzzz bzzz. Pretty soon you’re playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” like a pro.
Starner, by the way, is a current technical lead on Google Glass. He’s actually been wearing some kind of computer on his head for over 20 years. In fact, he built a wearable computer with a mounted display back in 1993. He’s also heavily involved in AI and techniques in human computer interaction (HCI) using wearable tech.
His glove is like one of those fingerless leather gloves you’d see at the gym for weight lifting, but with a robotic box of wires fixed at the back containing a Bluetooth radio and microcontroller. This means you can hook it up to your laptop or mobile device and start to play a song.
Mobile Music Touch has been something of a study in haptic learning for Starner for the past couple of years. That repetitive buzz from the device infuses a kind of muscle memory that, in theory, can really cut your time for learning things like playing the piano.
But it has a much wider potential for teaching not just patterns but also language. He lists off a series of other applications like sign language and Braille.
He’s also studied the effects the glove might have on those with spinal cord injuries. “We looked at those with fractured spines between the fourth and seventh vertebrae and found that using the glove actually helped them gain some sensation back in their hands.” This was over the course of a year and without other rehabilitation efforts, according to Starner.
The remarkable thing is that those studied in the injury actually pick up skills faster if they don’t think about it. It’s an idea called Passive Haptic Learning (PHL). If you’ve ever been a dancer or played guitar you know you’re better when you just move to the rhythm instead of thinking about what you are doing. Starner says it’s kinda like that.
The PHL activities associated with Starner’s glove allows an individual to learn one skill through their sense of touch while performing another, unrelated activity.
“And do you think a baseball player improves his pitch if you just show him a video of what he’s doing wrong?” he asks. Maybe? “Who knows? I don’t know…but what if he had something that could teach him how to throw right while he’s throwing?” Rad.
We’re far off from learning to immediately fly a helicopter, according to Starner. And of course you don’t suddenly become Beethoven just by putting on the glove. But the research does indicate you can master skills at a much faster pace and with more precision than just trying to do it on your own.