Did you know that you are just full of electricity? Electrical impulses play an incredibly important job in your body. Inside your body you carry all sorts of electrical signals; mainly, these allow your body to perform internal communications. Electrical impulses are carried between the various parts of your body by the nervous system – a network of specialized cells that shoot electric impulses down their length.
This is how you can command your arm to move and pick up an object. Your brain contains trillions of these cells packed together, where they talk to each other in order to solve various problems. You and I are the product of this intercommunication between the cells. This is where our minds are generated. The human brain and nervous system is one of the most complex structures we know of in the universe. It’s a delicate yet powerful system that will still take decades, if not centuries, to fully understand.
Messing with Perfection
Not understanding it all perfectly hasn’t stopped human beings from messing with it by pumping electricity into the nerves and muscles. As you probably learned in science class, it was an Italian genius named Luigi Galvani that discovered in 1780 that if you put electricity into the muscle tissue of dead frogs their legs would twitch. Although they were dead, there was still some chemical energy left in the muscles; when they received an electrical impulse they would dutifully contract.
Galvani basically invented the field of bioelectricity and one of the (dumber) results of this science are those exercise machines that make your muscles contract while you sit on the couch and watch TV. However, it turns out it works the other way as well; every time you move your arm or other part of your body a small electrical signal is generated. With the right sensor this signal can be recorded and used for all sorts of purposes. What we care about, however, is how this could be used in VR, and that’s where the magic can really happen.
At the moment, motion control in VR is usually achieved by something like a Touch Controller. It’s something you hold, and the motion sensors inside the device translate the forces that your arm exerts on it into mirror-motion in your virtual arm. Alternatively, they might use a glove or other form-fitting wearable to measure fine movement in high detail. These days there are even high-resolution cameras that do a pretty good job of watching your movements and then relaying them to your avatar.
Now, an alternative is to introduce sensors that identify a particular muscle’s movement by measuring its electrical activity and then amplifying and converting that into motion data that a computer can understand. There are many advantages to this. For one thing, you don’t have to use external tracking hardware, which means increased freedom of movement and the possibility of portable control. In this case it would also be important to note that myoelectric sensor devices could be worn underneath the clothes so they don’t need to get in the way of your daily activities.
The Real Deal
Does this all sound a little experimental? Well, if you have a spare two hundred bucks or so lying around you can buy a commercial muscle tracker right now. It’s called the Myo Gesture Control Armband; with it you can control stuff in supported VR apps or in other applications just by moving your arm, hand, or fingers. It’s some serious Sci-Fi stuff, if you ask me. Right now the Myo is a little niche, with only about a 100 applications of all types supported, but the technology is here. It’s affordable, and if it becomes popular enough it could change VR forever.
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