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Brown Bag Speaker Series: Strain: Myoelectric Sculpture Control with the Thalmic Myo Armband

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Speaker: Alex Leitch (Pictured Left), Co-Director of the MS in Human-Computer Interaction, University of Maryland
Celia Chen, 2nd year PhD student in the Information Studies program, University of Maryland

Location: HBK 2105 and Zoom

Abstract: Novel HCI devices are prone to planned obsolescence, which sometimes causes clever ideas and great sensor packages to be trashed before being thoroughly explored. This is a particular problem in closed-source hardware designed with strongly opinionated interfaces. The Myo armband by Thalmic Labs packed high-grade EMG sensors into a successful, compact wearable, before being discontinued in 2018. This talk covers how we repurposed a Myo armband to take advantage of its subtle muscle tracking to activate a pneumatic sculpture made from materials that are similarly regarded as junk in the making. This creative hacking approach is a promising way to thwart planned obsolescence, which is especially important when it comes to HCI and accessibility devices.

By interfacing a Myo to a Raspberry Pi 3B+, we enabled forearm muscles to trigger air valves and animate assemblies of latex, bamboo, and PLA. These forms were then programmed to maintain peristalsis, only to dramatically deflate and flop about in response to custom gesture control. Though the interactions aim more for surprise and delight than technical polish, this comedy of errors examines the latent expressiveness of both the obsolete Myo hardware and everyday trash. It also allowed us to explore which software systems, exactly, would be required to take further advantage of the Myo system in an open-hardware environment. By finding fresh ways to work with what’s on our shelves, we hope to squeeze more value from devices otherwise destined for landfills.


Alex Leitch: Alex Leitch investigates human-computer interaction through a blend of critical scholarship, hands-on pedagogy, and interactive installation art. They currently serve as Co-Director of the MS in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Maryland, where they have taught courses on programming, interaction design, and digital fabrication since 2019. Alex’s installations invite public engagement while probing the embedded values in sociotechnical systems. As an interaction designer, they analyze issues like gender representation in engineering spaces, legibility in code, and truth in algorithms. Currently pursuing a PhD in Information Studies, their research examines the labour consequences of browser infrastructure underpinning today’s dominant digital interfaces. Their praxis fuses empirical studies with speculative artifacts that reimagine society’s relationship to emerging tech.

For this project, Alex made the sculpture and debugged key elements of the software to ensure the serial port communication worked properly.

Celia Chen: Celia Chen is a 2nd year PhD student in the Information Studies program at the University of Maryland. They hold BS and MS degrees in Cognitive and Psychological Data Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where they worked with the RPIrates on computational text analysis of political tweets and creating predictive models using WHO data to estimate early COVID-19 infection spread under the advisement of Dr. James Hendler. Concurrently advised by Dr. Alicia Walf, they wrote protocols for using Fitbits and other biometric sensors for human subjects research, gaining experience with wearable sensors and physiological data. Currently advised by Dr. Jen Golbeck, their personal research explores user identity construction and language use in online spaces. For this project, Celia handled the coding to enable communication between the Myo armband, Raspberry Pi, and pneumatic robot, drawing on their background in cognitive science and human sensor input.