LED BY CO-FOUNDER AND CEO STEPHEN LAKE, CANADIAN START-UP THALMIC LABS HAS CREATED A DEVICE STRAIGHT OUT OF SCIENCE FICTION. BY LISA MISCHIANTI. PHOTOGRAPHED BY LIANA TARANTIN
In a small suburb of Toronto, 13-year-old Stephen Lake set up shop in his parents’ basement building robots from deconstructed radios and crafting LED lighting systems for remote control cars. He packaged the latter with his mom’s vacuum sealer to sell on eBay. Ten years later, Lake is seated in the lobby of a midtown New York hotel dressed in dark-wash jeans and a gray zip-up hoodie stitched with the logo for Thalmic Labs, the company he founded about a year and a half ago with Aaron Grant and Matthew Bailey, two fellow recent University of Waterloo mechatronics grads. This is just one of many trips he’s made to the city in the past few weeks to demonstrate his company’s invention, a Minority Report-esque armband that uses a hand-gesture-based interface to interact with applications ranging from gaming to stroke-patient physiotherapy. But before the Today show appearances and Popular Mechanics awards, Thalmic Labs was just three guys tinkering in an open-concept workspace.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” admits Lake. “The first eight months, we were funding it out of pocket—student loan debt, credit card debt.” He pauses and grins, recalling the moment their vision became a reality: “Finally, in August of last year, we had this really crude-looking thing, wires everywhere, but we were able to control PowerPoint with it. People from other companies were running over like, ‘Holy crap, it actually works?’ It was pretty amazing.”
Gesture control has been available to the masses since consoles like Wii and Xbox Kinect entered the marketplace. But for anyone who’s accidentally stepped out of range during a game’s crucial moment, it’s clear that these camera-based systems have limitations. Voice control is another way people communicate with their technology on a more human level, but its accuracy can be unreliable. So for Lake, the question became: “How can we interact with the next evolution of what digital tech becomes?”
His answer was to bring users’ own biology into the mix. Armed with an understanding of electromyography, the study of the electrical activity of muscles, the trio conceived of a device for the forearm that would allow wearers to control apps remotely by means of the internal impulses generated by simple hand gestures combined with standard motion-detection and Bluetooth technology.
The finished product, dubbed Myo, is a sleek armband available in black or white for $149, beginning in early 2014 (as of press time, the company has already racked up more than 40,000 pre-orders). With a mere snap of the fingers, users can switch iTunes tracks from across the room; with a quick flick of the wrist, they can pause and rewind a YouTube cooking tutorial. One of the more badass apps allows users to instantly share record airtime and speed on the slopes via social media by throwing up some devil horns. And that’s just a fraction of what’s possible—about 5,000 developers have signed on to build compatible software.
Of course, any time a major technological innovation is unveiled, critics will inevitably swoop in, questioning whether the advance is really a step forward. But Lake, like a true tech loyalist raised on robots, pays them no heed. “It doesn’t have to be that the more technology you have, the more lazy you get,” he says with a shrug. “If anything, wearable tech is the opposite. It’s doing less to tie you to a screen and more to get you living your life.”