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Canadian startup muscles into gesture-control market

Thalmic Labs' gesture control armband dubbed as MYO is seen in this undated handout photo courtesy of Thalmic Labs. REUTERS/MYO/Thalmic Labs
Thalmic Labs' gesture control armband dubbed as MYO is seen in this undated handout photo courtesy of Thalmic Labs. REUTERS/MYO/Thalmic Labs

By Supantha Mukherjee and Krithika Krishnamurthy

(Reuters) - Ever wanted to unleash your inner Jedi?

If Thalmic Labs makes good on its promise, Star Wars fans will soon be able to play video games with the sweep of a hand.

The Canadian startup venture says it has 22,000 pre-orders for its MYO device, an armband that reads muscle signals before amplifying and relaying them to gadgets using Bluetooth wireless technology. It plans to begin deliveries in the fourth quarter.

"It's a functional device," Stephen Lake, co-founder and chief executive of Thalmic Labs, told Reuters in an interview. "We have prototypes currently. We'll be shipping commercial units by the end of this year."

Gesture-based devices, such as the Kinect device used by Microsoft Corp for its Xbox 360 gaming console, have grabbed the attention of technology companies on the back of the runaway success of touch-enabled smartphones and tablets.

Another device developed by Israel-based start-up Leap Motion reproduces finger movements on screen, effectively converting a monitor into a touchscreen display without the need for a mouse. (http://r.reuters.com/nap86t)

Priced at $149, the MYO is more expensive than Leap Motion's $80 sensor and Microsoft's $100 Kinect, both of which use external sensors, for example a camera, to detect hand movements and apply them to a specific device.

What sets the MYO apart is its use of muscle movement to control a wide range of devices. The device takes its name from the Greek word for muscle.

Its dependence on muscle signals also means the MYO, unlike other gesture-controlled devices, needs to be specially calibrated for each individual user, said Juan P. Wachs, an expert on interfaces between humans and machines.

"The problem with this kind of technology is that it requires lengthy calibration," said Wachs, assistant professor at the School of Industrial Engineering in Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

"It's not that, once you calibrate, someone else will use the band and it will work right away," said Wachs, who is familiar with Thalmic Labs' work.

Would he buy the device? "Definitely."

Lake said Thalmic Labs would provide access to its software interface for developers to make apps that are similar to mobile app ecosystems already used by Google Inc and Apple Inc.

"We provide the software interface," he said. "(Developers) are free to use the device for whatever they are interested in, and we've had all kinds of different ideas."

'VERY COOL'

Thalmic Labs was founded in May 2012 by three mechatronics engineering graduates from the University of Waterloo, Ontario. It has the backing of angel investors such as Y-Combinator.

It began taking pre-orders online from February 25 and has said it will ship the device anywhere in the world.

Lake said the company was working with "contract partners" to manufacture the devices and that its first shipment would be limited to 25,000 units.

"We're not going to stop taking orders after that, but we're not going to promise to deliver in the very first shipment," he said, adding that Thalmic Labs would charge customers only when the device is ready to ship.

A demonstration video shows MYO users, armband attached, moving their hands to play shooting games and control computer screens, presentation slides, flying objects and remote-control military vehicles. (http://r.reuters.com/dap86t)

The company's website carries the endorsement of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who describes the MYO as "very cool and impressive".

Lake said he hoped the MYO would be available in the mainstream market from next year, through "the traditional retail channels".

Technology blog Singularity Hub wrote this month: "A few years from now, it isn't hard to imagine people wearing Google Glass or a related headset, using a MYO armband to control the headset and other computers in the area, and having a Leap Motion to use a computer at their workstations."

Google in February revealed some of the features of Google Glass, a pair of glasses that allows users to see information and record video.

Lake, meanwhile, said Thalmic Labs' efforts to deliver a futuristic device had piqued the attention of bigger companies.

"We certainly have ... interest from many companies," said Lake, who in 2007 was named as one of Canada's Top 20 Under 20, a youth awards program for leadership and initiative.

But selling up is not in his plans. Lake said he would rather build the company up and go public.

(Editing by Robin Paxton)

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