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When A Device Commands Your Body

When A Device Commands Your Body

Wearable devices which interact more directly with the human body can stimulate muscles into performing a task

Illustration by Ajay Thakuri Illustration by Ajay Thakuri

Move over, iWatch. Pedro Lopes, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago and Head of the Human-Computer Integration Lab, predicts a whole new future for wearables. Lopes says that the next step lies in integrating these devices with the human body to ensure better control over our involuntary physical activities. In fact, he and his team have been working on such devices for some time. The new-age wearables, known as electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) devices, are designed to control body muscles with the help of electrical impulses instead of passively recording their activities as fitness trackers and smartwatches currently do. But here is the most amazing thing: These EMS devices can help one perform a task one has never done before, according to a CNBC report. Simply put, an EMS device can make you play the guitar or operate machinery or enhance your reflexes by moving your muscles as and when required. The technology was recently demonstrated at the CNBC Evolve Summit in Chicago.

The EMS device developed by the team is worn like a sleeve on the arm from where it has access to the wearer's muscles. Electrical and non-painful impulses can be passed through to make the person change arm positions and execute hand gestures and movements.

"The wearables you buy today are pretty much a reduced smartphone. You shrink the smartphone display, put it on a wristwatch, and you have it," CNBC quoted Lopes as saying. "But what if we take that to the next step. What if these devices can not only read signals from the human body but also intersect and interject signals into the human body? If a wearable is able to move our muscles, we've just unlocked a very different way to learn a physical skill."

Research on human interaction with objects also involves affordance or action possibilities - things we can do with objects. The research team headed by Lopes is now trying to extend those object properties to enhance 'actionability' and user experience. For example, a spray can shakes when touched or sprays only after touching and does not allow shaking or spraying when empty. "But rather than enhancing objects directly, we implement this concept by enhancing the user. We call this affordance++," Lopes wrote in a research paper. "By stimulating the user's arms using electrical muscle stimulation, our prototype allows objects not only to make the user actuate them but also perform the required movements while merely approaching the object, such as not to touch objects that do not 'want' to be touched. In our user study, affordance++ helped participants successfully operate devices of poor natural affordance such as a multifunctional slicer tool or a magnetic nail sweeper and to stay away from cups filled with hot liquids."

The research has interesting implications for training. If these concepts become part of the everyday world, training time may come down dramatically or may not be necessary in many cases. We may also see enhanced safety standards when an object does not allow being touched or manipulated under defined conditions. The scope can expand further as there are many methods of implementing affordance, especially by integrating sensors and actuators with the human body.

Meet The Humanoid Android

Unsettling as it may sound, a Russian company called Promobot is offering to create a robot clone to help you achieve a bizarre form of digital immortality. Robo-C, as the new entity is called, will not be as mobile as a human, but it will not lack in personality and skills. Besides, Promotbot is set to mass-produce Robo-C, and the sky is the limit for the uses one can put it to. For instance, it can be developed to act as a digital companion or a service robot in a public place. Or it can be put to work in an office where it can be immensely helpful. In fact, the company thinks that the new robo may replace human workers in many situations. "Everyone will now be able to order a robot with any appearance - for professional or personal use. Thus, we open a huge market in service, education and entertainment," says Aleksei Iuzhakov, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Promobot. "Imagine a replica of Michael Jordan selling basketball uniforms and William Shakespeare reading his own texts in a museum."

Robo-C has over 600 facial expressions which are quite fluid, making it very human-like. It also has artificial skin, created by the company that has a large component base.