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New Control Devices: Solutions Looking for a Problem?


If you‘re an early adopter, you’ve no doubt found yourself watching the window with bated breath for   the next gadget promised to enhance your life and productivity. This was the scenario I found myself in this January as I waited for my new Myo from upstart technology firm Thalmic Labs. The Myo is a Bluetooth-enabled electronic wristband that wirelessly connects to your smartphone, tablet, desktop, or drone and allows you to control them with various hand signals. It all looks and sounds very intuitive and futuristic and, in some ways, it is. The Myo works by reading the unique electromyographical signals that your forearm muscles give off when performing hand gestures, then maps them to different functions for your device. Bearing all of this in mind, a mere two weeks after my initial excitement, the Myo sits on my desk with a handful of other gadgets, barely used.

In Thalmic Labs’ defense, my waning interest in the Myo is only about 50% due to the quality of the device itself. The other half is owed to the fact that after a few hours of use, I found the Myo to be largely redundant for my personal needs. All of the whiz-bang features that the Myo showcased are better or more conveniently completed with the default controls. My phone’s touch screen is more responsive, my computer’s mouse is more precise, and my drone’s remote gives me greater maneuverability over a device that I’d rather not end up on my neighbor’s rooftop. The Myo works as advertised; unfortunately, for my purposes, it’s more of a hobby than a necessity.

This anecdote is indicative of a larger trend in the personal computing landscape. Many manufacturers and computing companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and startups like Thalmic Labs are testing the consumer waters with new ways to connect with our electronics and our data. For the most part, these new products have been met with a rather tepid response from all but the techiest of techies. Even the reveal of the Apple watch inspired more than a few “meh”s online.

Since the introduction of touchscreens, there has been little in the way of transformative hardware that’s taken off with the masses. Silicon Valley is aware of this and has taken up the challenge, albeit with lackluster commercial and critical success. The technologies behind these gadgets are great. Products like the Myo, Leap Motion, and the now-defunct Google Glass are all engineering marvels that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. Unfortunately, trying to shoehorn these devices into a tech ecosystem that is already well designed, optimized, and integrated has not been fruitful.

These products are what I like to call solutions looking for a problem. Sure, they offer a new, high-tech way to control your gadgets, but as far as I know, not many people are complaining about the old standby, the mouse-keyboard-touchscreen combo. Products like Microsoft’s recently-announced Hololens demo really well. The augmented-reality goggles make things like CAD models, spreadsheets, and games appear overlaid on your real-life surroundings, giving you another level of immersion beyond a static 2D screen. It looks really cool to see a designer sculpting a virtual model with their hands rather than clicking and dragging their way through the creative process. While the Hololens hasn’t been released yet, I would be willing to wager that said designers would much rather sit at their desks and create with minimal physical motion, than walk around and wave their hands through the air while appearing a lunatic to bystanders.

And therein lies the trap that these companies (and suckers like me) keep falling into. The mouse, keyboard, and touchscreen are not as sexy as a pair of virtual-reality goggles, but they require minimal effort and the entire computing ecosystem is built with them in mind. Naysaying aside, Apple’s iPhone showed us that all it takes is one really well-designed product to change the landscape overnight. Considering this, I can’t fault them for trying, but I will think twice before I blow another $200 on my next paperweight.

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