Thalmic Labs gets $14.5 million to build an interface that lets your biceps do the talking

Thalmic Labs, a Waterloo, Ontario, company that makes a wearable armband that translates gestures into action on computers, has raised a $14.5 million Series A round led by Spark Capital and Intel Capital. Thalmic, which was formed in 2012, is behind the Myo band, which we covered a few weeks back. The armband measures muscle movements in the arm or hand and allows people to control computers via gesture.

Thalmic, which had raised a $1 million seed round and was a member of the winter 2013 Y Combinator class, has a who’s who of investors in the round. Formation 8, First Round Capital, FundersClub, Paul Graham, Marc Benioff and Sam Altman are among those who participated.

New UIs for the new era of computing

Our computing eras are defined by and constrained by our user interfaces. Desktops and laptops were designed for productivity, thus keyboards and alter mice dominated. Touchscreens helped computers go mobile and now, better voice interfaces such as Siri are enabling people to do more on those tiny screens. But as we prepare for connected devices everywhere, and wearables like Google Glass, touch screens and voice don’t make the grade.

That’s why devices like the Myo, the Kinect and the Leap Motion controller are so interesting. They expand the number of ways we can manipulate software, and in turn propel people to create new software. The Kinect or the Nintendo Wii are early examples that have spawned a new type of gaming. But something like the Myo is exciting for someone thinking about how to control a device like Glass or any other augmented-reality interface. Even touch is kind of a flat UI that can’t compare to manipulating objects in 3-D.

And when we start superimposing computing on the world, we’re going to need the 3-D capabilities of gesture controls. Since the Myo is worn, and doesn’t rely on a camera for sensing motion, it’s perfect for a more mobile experience like Glass. If you are wearing it, you can twist your hand to call up information, which is probably less distracting than speaking out loud.

The application gap

Stephen Lake, CEO and co-founder of Thalmic Labs, views the Myo as the means for interacting when computing becomes embedded all around us, and in a conversation a few weeks ago he explained that we’re moving from “graphical user interfaces to NUIs or natural user interfaces.”

“When you provide a new input tech the interesting question is how does that enable you to change the form factor and the computers,” Lake said. The Myo, he said, is just one form factor for Thalmic Labs, and the goal is to think about user interfaces in totally new ways for the next generation of computing.

This funding will certainly help Thalmic get there. Because as cool as the armband may look, it has an uphill road. New user interfaces have a chicken-and-egg problem. People don’t buy the Kinect in a vacuum — they buy a game system with cool games. While I was a speech-to-text aficionado before Siri came out, most people viewed my own Android speech-to-text apps as strange. Thalmic right now not only has to build a credible, working device, but it has to have cool software or hardware that takes advantage of the armband, and that’s a tall order.

Thalmic labs has received pre-orders for over 30,000 units from customers over the last three months. The pre-order price is $149, which is kind of steep for the general public to pay for a product with an uncertain application ecosystem. However, as part of the investment from Intel Capital, Thalmic Labs will gain access to Intel’s manufacturing and technology expertise to help it scale production. That could help the three founders from the University of Waterloo’s mechatronics engineering program avoid mistakes that could postpone or sink their dream.

Either way, anyone waiting for one of these devices will have to hold off until 2014, when the Myo band is expected to actually ship. Lately it seems, I’m covering more products that remind me that the future is here … almost.