Emerging Trends: EMG, the Upcoming Human-Machine Interface

One of the coolest areas of frontier tech that is starting to emerge is Electromyography (EMG).  It’s part of what some firms are coining neurotechnology which is a set of technologies designed to digitize nerve and brain activity. 

EMG is hardware that uses sensors to record electrical activity from muscles.  A more thorough explanation of the science can be found here.  The technology was initially invented for medical applications but lately has been used in computer technologies by using nerve signals from muscle and hand gestures to interact with computers.  On the consumer side this type of technology is being coined intention capture because it interprets electrical impulses from nerves in a user’s muscles. The user doesn’t even need to make the motion but simply think it for their intention to be captured. Seeing is believing as the videos show. 

Two startups that are leading in this space are Thalmic Labs and CTRL-Labs.  The Myo armband from Canadian startup Thalmic labs was on the market for $130 per unit before the startup pivoted and discontinued the product. Reports from users were a lack of use cases and accuracy.  CTRL-Labs technology is still in R&D mode but seems to be able to interpret finer muscle impulses allowing users to type by capturing their intention rather than an actual movement.  They are releasing an SDK and hardware soon. So far the interface is via some sort of control armband, like a big watch band.  However, as the technology evolves its easy to see this shrinking in size and locations available to place it.

Challenges of course remain here, with one of the big ones being humans who have more body fat don’t give accurate reading to the sensors. Another is picking up signals precisely among the muscles in your body.

Most neurotech is to early for any sort of commercial application, but EMG is much closer to mainstream commercialization than the others such as direct brain-computer interfaces. This is because there is no need to break the skin-barrier or insert any sort of chip to create the interface.  I expect to see it talked about in the press and by average people in the next ~5 years.  The market and number of applications for this type of application will also be huge.

I will be watching this area develop closely and am extremely curious as to the applications that are created.