A high-tech controller you don’t even have to press buttons on is right up there with Spider-Man’s web-shooters and Iron Man’s Bleeding Edge armor on the “future things that would make life cooler” list, but could that technology actually be ready for our living rooms in the near future? A patent filed at the U.S. Patent And Trademark Officein July suggests that Microsoft intends to find out.
“A “Wearable Electromyography-Based Controller,” states the patent, “includes a plurality of Electromyography (EMG) sensors and provides a wired or wireless human-computer interface (HCl) for interacting with computing systems and attached devices via electrical signals generated by specific movement of the user’s muscles. Following initial automated self-calibration and positional localization processes, measurement and interpretation of muscle generated electrical signals is accomplished by sampling signals from the EMG sensors of the Wearable Electromyography-Based Controller. In operation, the Wearable Electromyography-Based Controller is donned by the user and placed into a coarsely approximate position on the surface of the user’s skin. Automated cues or instructions are then provided to the user for fine-tuning placement of the Wearable Electromyography-Based Controller. Examples of Wearable Electromyography-Based Controllers include articles of manufacture, such as an armband, wristwatch, or article of clothing having a plurality of integrated EMG-based sensor nodes and associated electronics.”
Paving the way in the field of “Wearable Electromyography-Based Controllers” is Microsoft’s Digits (shown at the very top of the article). Microsoft Digits is an input device that uses L.E.D. (Light Emitting Diodes) to bounce light off the wearer’s hand. The fingers are highlighted by a laser and a camera interprets it’s reflections. Then, the reflections are sent to a computer that is able to create a copy of the hand that is accurate to within a hundredth of an inch. While the device is far from finished, (it currently needs to be plugged into a computer and is relatively big), a smaller, wireless version is in the works. Applications of technology like Microsoft’s Digits range from controlling televisions, music players, and more. What everyone really wants to know, and by far the most challenging aspect, is how it will affect the future of gaming.
The challenge won’t rest solely with the hardware. With several game developers having already tried their hand at unlocking the potential of motion capture technology in the recent past, most attempts have largely been viewed as clunky and imprecise (See: Kung Fu Rider). The real challenge lies in finding game developers who can accurately utilize EMG technology into something practical enough for casual gaming as well as responsive enough for competitive gaming. It’s not enough for the experience to simply look cool. For it to be necessary it actually has to be easier than using a hand-held controller. For example, imagine how satisfying a Spider-Man game becomes when you can use your own fingers to simulate Spider-Man’s web-shooters (THWIP!). Or how pointing your palms at the floor could simulate Iron Man’s propulsion system. Not only are both of those actions easier than pressing a combination of buttons, it’s downright intuitive. To be fully immersed, however, the game’s will have to move beyond hand gestures into the full spectrum of human movement. Any good MMO, for example, has a multitude of different actions a character can perform on a hand-held controller or mouse and keyboard while simultaneously moving and looking around to complete their objective. How a game will accurately depict your entire body to within a hundredth of an inch (or better) with any combination of wearable sensor nodes is the Holy Grail that game developers must quest for.
Another point to consider is if EMG technology could be connected to “immersive display experience,” a seperate Microsoft patent filed back in March of 2011. In short, this technology would use your television and a “depth camera,” most likely Microsoft’s Kinect or a Kinect-like device coming down the road, that would project the display onto your walls.
The implications of “Wearable Electromyography-Based Controllers” are far reaching and this is simply the beginning. Whether or not a finished version of this technology will have us “thwiping” around our living rooms as soon as the Next Gen Consoles are available is currently unknown, but what we can say for sure is that the future of gaming is looking pretty damn cool.