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the challenge revisited

Stephen Lake, CEO and co-founder of Thalmic Labs, helps demonstrate the company’s Myo armband device at his office in Kitchener, Ont.Patrick Dell/The Globe and Mail

The hype, it turned out, was worth heeding. Myo, a wireless, gesture-control armband that earned tens of thousands of preorders in just a few months, is now shipping to customers.

The motion-sensing armband, designed by Kitchener, Ont. company Thalmic Labs Inc., can operate computer and mobile programs with simple gestures. It became an instant hit when it was announced in early 2013, but there was a hitch: By that June, in spite of all the preorders, the company was still scouting manufacturers.

That left Thalmic Labs in a tough spot as it tried to balance product development with keeping its early backers' attention.

A year and a half later, the first armbands have finally been delivered, with "north of" 50,000 orders placed, says Stephen Lake, Thalmic Labs' co-founder. Not only did the company find the right manufacturers, but they kept in contact with anxious customers, telling them about new applications and features and shipping pre-release versions for developers to test.

The company has managed to ship 12 per cent of Myo's preorders so far, Mr. Lake says.

As an undergrad at the University of Waterloo, Mr. Lake and his friends found themselves researching wearable wireless technology after sharing a mutual frustration with cumbersome video game controls. Myo emerged from that research – it's a band worn on the forearm that lets the user control everything from slide presentations to DJ software on their computer or mobile device.

In February of 2013, the newly minted Thalmic Labs began taking orders for the $150 band. Hype outpaced product development, however. When The Globe and Mail spoke with the company for the Small Business Challenge in mid-2013, Mr. Lake and his colleagues were still looking for the right manufacturer.

They also were unsure about how involved they would need to be in the process.

"I think that we probably underestimated, in the early days, how important it is to have our own people literally on the factory floor, and on the daily calls with the teams that are with the manufacturers, to help them work through issues," Mr. Lake says.

Thalmic Labs eventually found manufacturers to partner with, though Mr. Lake declined to identify them. While some parts are made overseas, he says, the device itself is assembled in Canada.

"We actually had to develop lots of those pieces ourselves, because no one's ever done this particular type of product before," he says.

While the company kept its backers in the loop, a few were chosen to help hone the product. Close to 1,000 of them were given an early version of the Myo, Mr. Lake says.

"The final form that we're shipping now is significantly improved from the first version we showed off when we first announced the product ... half the thickness and a much more robust design," he says.

The armband has picked up some big-name supporters. Armin Van Buuren, one of the most influential DJs in the world, has incorporated Myo into his stage show to control lights and visuals.

Developers, meanwhile, have begun to launch DJ applications for the device through its application store, MyoMarket, including connectivity with Ableton Live, Serato and Garage Band.

Growing the number of applications available for Myo is high on the company's to-do list, as is shipping its backlog of preorders. The company is also taking new orders, for $199, to ship in the new year.

Following that, Mr. Lake says, Thalmic will also examine the possibility of new products – though there's "nothing in the short-term pipeline."