Alfonso was demonstrating Pison’s new gesture control system, a technology that has so far eluded corporate giants such as Microsoft who have spent hundreds of millions trying to perfect it. Pison, a startup from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims to have developed a convenient way to control all kinds of digital devices by intercepting electronic traffic between our hands and our brains, and translating them into commands that machines can understand.
The system was invented to help people with nerve disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and others who have little or no control over their muscles. The mere thought of moving your hands is enough.
“We enable contactless control regardless of the capacity of a human body,” said Pison founder Dexter Ang.
Earlier gesture control systems, such as Microsoft’s ill-fated Kinect gaming device, used a box full of sensors to track user movements. But the Pison wrist sensor looks like a smartwatch. It detects “biopotentials”, nerve signals sent to a user’s hand from their brain. The device also contains chips that track the movements of the hands and arms. All of this data is sent to the user’s smartphone, which can issue commands to a computer, robot, flying drone, or living room light switch.
And unlike Microsoft Kinect, Pison’s technology is portable and can be used anywhere.
The dog-shaped Spot robot used by Alfonso is designed to carry multiple drones on its back. A demo video shows a rescue team leading the Spot robot through a forest, showing it the way. Then they use gestures to launch multiple drones which use video cameras to search for an injured hiker.
“This complementary technology will be particularly useful when multiple Spots are deployed and in specific applications such as search and rescue,” Boston Dynamics vice president Michael Perry said in an email.
Pison is also working with Microsoft, which is looking to add gesture control to its HoloLens augmented reality system. An industrial worker or soldier wearing an AR helmet sees digital images superimposed on the real world. With a Pison system, he could interact with nearby machines through gestures, without the need for touch screens or joysticks.
Pison plans to release a commercial version of its system for sale at the end of this year or early 2022. The company is planning plenty of mainstream apps: A smartphone user could play their favorite podcast by waving a finger, or calling a weather report by waving a thumb. Ang provides for almost unlimited uses.
But he started the business for a more personal reason. In 2014, Ang’s mother, Chiu Ang, was diagnosed with ALS, an incurable disease that left her unable to control her muscles.
“She couldn’t take a spoon to feed herself,” Ang said. “She couldn’t move her hand to click a mouse, and she couldn’t do her favorite activity, which was reading books.”
Ang quit his job at a futures trading company in Chicago and returned to Boston to look after Chiu. At one point, she asked him if someone could invent a way to sense signals from her brain to her hand, so she could control an e-book reader again. Although Chiu Ang passed away in 2015, the suggestion stuck with her son. He returned to MIT, joined an advanced study program without a degree, and got a $ 25,000 grant from the school’s Sandbox Innovation Fund to get Pison off the ground. The company has since raised around $ 5 million, much of it from the venture capital arm of audio equipment maker Bose Corp.
Today, Pison is conducting clinical trials with approximately 20 people with ALS, including Steve Saling, a landscape architect who was diagnosed with the disease in 2006. Today, Saling cannot speak and can barely move. But he can type messages using a system that recognizes his head movements. And he’s working with Pison on an upgrade.
“The project we developed together is a smart switch that can be used as a selector switch on my computer or as a mode or power switch on my wheelchair,” Saling wrote. “Pison was able to tap into my nervous system and interpret the signals it generated just by thinking of movement. It sounds like magic, but it’s just science.
Douglas Weber, professor of mechanical engineering and neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University, said the technology has potential for people with disabilities.
“It’s portable, it’s inexpensive, you can build them with out-of-the-box components,” he said.
But Weber noted that Pison faces stiff competition. In 2019, Facebook paid $ 1 billion for CTRL-Labs, a New York-based company developing a similar system. Facebook is believed to want to add gesture control to its Oculus virtual reality video game system, replacing clunky handheld controllers.
Weber also doubts gesture control will be adopted by most consumers. “The keyboard and mouse work pretty well for most things,” he said.
But Ang believes there is an unlimited market for Pison technology.
“We are only at the beginning of this new paradigm,” he said. “We imagine that our technology can be applicable to everyone, in the long term. “