Controlling an object with a hand gesture sounds more like Jedi wizardry than a real-life possibility. But after watching a CES 2021 demo of the Mudra Brand, I have to admit that perhaps this tech isn’t as far-fetched or gimmicky as I previously thought.
The Mudra Band looks pretty much like any smartwatch band would, except that the inside lining has several square-shaped Surface Nerve Conductance (SNC) sensors. These sensors measure something the company refers to as “biopotentials”—basically, the electrochemical activity produced by your nervous system. Fundamentally, this is the same concept used by more familiar tech like ECGs, albeit for a much different purpose.
This definitely sounds cool, but so far gesture tech has been a bit wonky. Normally, it involves waving at a camera or IR sensors, much like Google’s Project Soli (which powers the gesture features on Pixel phones) or the LG G8 ThinQ. Gizmodo got to compare both, and while the Pixel was much more reliable, neither were really game-changers. Likewise, Samsung quietly introduced control gestures on its Galaxy Watch 3 but in practice, I found them hard to use and gimmicky.
Given all this, I was skeptical going into the Mudra Band demo. The pitch is if you move your fingers in a specific way—say, pinching your thumb and forefinger together—you can single-handedly control the Apple Watch. The band supposedly picks up your neurological signals and then relays that to the smartwatch over Bluetooth. There are a lot of ways this could go sideways, and I had questions. Like, how sensitive were the sensors? Could it differentiate between intentional commands and accidental movements? How long did you have to wait between doing a gesture and it registering on the watch? What sort of applications and use cases would work with this thing?
Guy Wagner, the president and chief scientist at Wearable Devices Ltd (the company behind Mudra), demoed the device to me over video (due to the pandemic, of course), and it was actually impressive. On the Mudra app, I could see how the band was able to identify specific gestures, as well as detect in real-time when those gestures were made. More astonishing was the fact that if Wagner used his other hand to move a finger, nothing registered at all.
“I have to do it intentionally,” Wagner explained. “If I move it mechanically, nothing will happen. It’s the intention to do a movement. It’s not me thinking about making a phone call to someone or answering or dismissing that call.”
So it’s not mind-reading in the way we normally think of it, but watching it, it seemed pretty damn close.
Obviously, this kind of gesture tech would be very useful in a pandemic, where touching things willy nilly is not the best idea. It could also be helpful from a hands-free perspective. Personally, I would love it if I could skip to the next music track while running by simply curling a finger instead of having to slow down, view my surroundings, and then swipe through a screen. In the demo, I watched Wagner use the gesture tech to scroll through several movies in a streaming app, and even select one. He also used the band and some finger waggles to draw a picture within an art app. Right now, however, that sort of functionality is a bit further down the line. Wagner says that the focus is first on answering and dismissing phone calls, followed by media controls, and then whatever the customer base thinks is most relevant.
Wagner also thinks this tech could be useful for AR and VR. The problem right now is that there isn’t a particularly elegant way to navigate within a virtual space. You generally need a type of control, be it sticks, gloves, or ring-like cursors. The Mudra Band, or devices like it, could be a more intuitive way to interact with smart glasses or VR headsets.
At the moment, the Mudra Band isn’t available just yet, though the company has raised more than $200,000 on IndieGogo. You can also preorder the Mudra Band for $180 on the company’s website. Wagner says the first round of straps is currently in production, and that he expects to ship to backers sometime in March this year.
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