Editor's Note: Thalmic Labs is a winner of Inc.'s 2017 Design Awards, our annual recognition of entrepreneurs using design to build great companies, in the "Interaction Design" category.
On a cool April night five years ago, Stephen Lake, Matthew Bailey, and Aaron Grant were drinking beers when they stumbled upon what seemed like a life-altering question: What would the next iteration of the computer mouse--invented in 1964--look like?
Eventually, the University of Waterloo students arrived at an answer--one they had to create for themselves. The Myo armband is a "natural interface" wearable gadget that recognizes a person's gestures, allowing him or her to control Bluetooth-enabled devices with a flick of a hand. Built with sensors powered by electromyography--a medical technique used to record and evaluate the tiny electrical impulses sent between one's brain and muscles--the Myo arm bracelet translates muscle activity into commands that any Roku or drone will respond to.
The engineers used student loans and credit card debt to fund the first Myo prototype--buying a 3-D printer on Kijiji (the Canadian version of Craigslist) and then hijacking a co-working-space bathroom stall for their personal R&D lab. Finally, after four sleep-deprived months of placing electrodes on their shaved, gel-doused arms, they had a working unit.
It's been a blur ever since. In 2013, a successful preorder campaign resulted in
$4 million in sales during Myo's first month, helping Kitchener, Ontario-based Thalmic Labs raise a $14.5 million Series A round led by Intel Capital. The next year, Myo shipped worldwide, but Thalmic couldn't keep up with demand, so it decided to open its technology to developers, who have since created more than 100 applications that span medicine, music, and gaming. Then, last September, Amazon, Intel, and Fidelity Investments Canada led a $120 million investment round.
While the co-founders won't reveal what's next in their quest to reinvent how humans interact with computers, they've devoted a team in their 190-person company to building a comprehensive database of human body measurements, such as hair-to-skin ratios and the average girth of an arm. "We're developing technology that responds to humans, not the other way around," says CEO Lake. "We believe human variability isn't a hurdle to be overcome when innovating, but something that should be embraced."
The many ways to wear a Myo armband
Surgeons are analyzing X-rays and CT scans with the Myo as they perform surgery, zooming in and rotating the images to ensure their scalpel is accurately placed.
An amputee at Johns Hopkins University is using the device on his upper arm to convert muscle activity into commands that control his robotic prosthetic forearm.
Researchers at Arizona State University are using it to translate sign language to
text. The device recognizes the user's hand gestures and matches them with their corresponding words or phrases in a sign language database, which then appear as text on a smartphone.
Developers created an app that can sync a Myo to a drone, so someone can fly it
with simple hand gestures.
An Amsterdam-based DJ uses two Myo armbands to control the visual and light effects during his shows, so when he raises his right arm, the stage lights move with him.