Skip to main content

The Myo armband.Shanghoon

Ever since computers leaped out of the mainframe, they've been moving in one direction—toward us. The various stages along the way, desktop to laptop to smartphone, have been mere intermediary steps to get to our eyes. Imagine virtual-reality goggles, ones that don't look like you're scuba diving. Imagine augmented-reality glasses that won't make strangers hate you. The spectacles of the future are coming for you.

Something's coming, anyway, and it isn't just sleeker smartphones. So says Stephen Lake, co-founder and CEO of Thalmic Labs, a Kitchener, Ontario-based hardware start-up that has been hawking the Myo armband since 2013. Worn on the forearm like an oversized cuff, the Myo allows its wearer to gesticulate meaningfully: You can fly a drone, manipulate a prosthetic limb, swing a sword in VR, or simply flip to the next song in iTunes.

The Myo is Thalmic Labs' first attempt at creating the critical interface for the next generation of wearable computers. And a whopping $120 million (U.S.) in Series B venture capital funding—the second-largest fundraising round in Canadian history, announced in September—says the company is on the right track.

I first visited Thalmic Labs this past spring, back when it only had around 70 employees in a two-storey building just off Kitchener's main drag. Security was tight, and whatever futuristic R&D they had cooking was carefully hidden from view. But I did receive a demonstration of the Myo. I learned to drive an Ollie—a zippy little robot with two wheels—and swipe through a PowerPoint presentation using simple gestures. Like many others, I found the Myo clunky and impressive at the same time. It's easy to see the potential, but hard to picture yourself wearing one. The company has so far managed to sell more than 50,000 of them with the help of a few viral videos, which is impressive for a wearables start-up, but probably not the main draw for the likes of Intel Capital, a lead investor in the latest round. That had more to do with what's in the pipeline.

Indeed, a lot has changed at Thalmic Labs since my first visit. Having doubled its head count over the past year, the company is doing it again, and gearing up to open a San Francisco office. There, the former head of marketing at Samsung Electronics America, Tara Kriese, will oversee the launch of new product lines. And Thalmic has announced plans to open a factory in Waterloo, where robots and the engineers that program them will build the next line of wearable devices.

Thalmic Labs is still tight-lipped about what that will be, but it clearly won't be more Myo armbands, at least not without a radical overhaul. When I asked Lake about the future of the product, the best he could muster was that it "has certainly been one stab at the problem" of creating the next computing interface. At $200 (U.S.), it's always been hard to imagine a heavy black manacle becoming the next indispensable tool for consumers.

Convincing late-adopters was never the point, however. For any hardware company, the trick to product development is to act fast, while playing the long game. "Speed to market really matters, especially in technology," says Mark Schmehl, a portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments Canada, which participated in the latest fundraising round. "Companies are launching the beta of the beta of the beta. Consumers are used to that: Just keep iterating until it's better."

And, for a device like this, get the programmers on board. After Thalmic Labs built the core technology, it promptly opened up the Myo's SDK (Software Development Kit) to let outside developers add their own software. Within a year, the online Myo Market offered more than 100 integrations with other applications and devices, such as the Ollie.

Thalmic (the name is a play on thalamus, the brain's sensory centre) was conceived at the University of Waterloo's mechatronics program, where the three founders—Lake, Matthew Bailey and Aaron Grant—saw how many scientists and researchers were delving into virtual-reality and augmented-reality technology. In their fourth year, the three engineers started working on a wearable scanner for the blind that would use laser sensors to detect obstacles in the environment and turn that information into tactile feedback.

While that project never developed into a marketable product, some recent patents by Thalmic Labs offer further clues to its vision of our cyborg destiny. One, filed last summer, describes a simple wristband containing sensors that "detect vibrations at the appendage of the user when the user performs different finger-tapping gestures." If you've ever put on a pair of VR goggles, you've experienced the obvious problem: You can't see your hands, which makes it hard to do things like typing. Translate that patent language, and Thalmic is aiming to give us virtual fingers for our virtual realities.

That would be an important accomplishment, but Thalmic faces some competition in the search for a better way to interact with virtual and augmented reality than video-game controllers. A company called MindMaze is trying to build brainwave sensing directly into a headset. Another company, Eyefluence (just acquired by Google), tracks eye movement with its "vision-driven user interface." And there are plenty of companies offering haptic (touch-sensitive) gloves—some begging for money on Kickstarter, some rushing to market, and others still in development, like HapticWave, a partner project between Oculus and Facebook. Every one of them promises to let us reach out and touch something digital.