For all of the promises made by Apple and Google, none of their smartwatches will give you superpowers. Strap on MIT’s new wearable, though, and you can suddenly have an extra pinky, a third thumb, or even a totally new cyborg hand.
Robotic Symbionts is a new wrist-worn wearable from New from MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group that adds programmable robot joints to any human hand. The wristband contains 11 different motors, which can detect brain signals sent to the brachioradialis muscle in the forearm. Since these muscles are not directly used by the human hand, anyone can learn how to use their Robotic Symbionts as an extension of their arm in as little as a few hours of practice.
For example, someone wearing a Robotic Symbionts wristband could easily use their smartphone while simultaneously carrying something in the same hand. Journalists could use their wristband to hold a pad of paper for them while they write on it. It could also be configured into what its creators call a “user interface on the go,” adapting to different needs in real time. When connected by Bluetooth to a computer, the wristband can operate as a combination stylus and joystick, allowing you to grab one of your robot fingers and use it to draw on a screen, or play a video game. It’s easy to imagine how the Robotic Symbionts could be used as accessibility device, too. For example, if you were born without an arm, you could make up for it by just strapping on MIT’s wristband to give yourself one super-powered cyborg hand that can do just as much.
But according to the device’s creator, PhD student Sang-won Leigh, it wasn’t necessarily developed with the disabled in mind. Instead, the group was inspired by Stelarc, a transhuman performance artist whose work often involves robotics integrated with his body. For example, Stelarc once grew a human ear in a petri dish–and then had it surgically attached to his left arm. While Stelarc’s work is fairly “dystopian,” Leigh says that the Fluid Interface Group wanted to try to adapt his approach to make it a little more mainstream and upbeat. “A lot of people think about machine augmentation in terms of rehabilitation, but we envisioned it as an assistive technology that wasn’t just for people with challenges, but which could turn people with normal physiology into superhumans,” Leigh says.
Eventually, Leigh says his group envisions humans and robots living in total symbiotic harmony, like a goby fish (hence the name, Robotic Symbionts). But the days of total human-robot symbiosis are still far off. Like all of MIT Media Lab’s projects, the goal of Robotic Symbionts isn’t to produce a commercial product, but to create a device that allow designers to think about the UI principles of tomorrow: in this case, the ones that will be created when grafting on a new robot limb is as easy as buying a new Apple Watch.
All Photos: courtesy MIT Fluid Interfaces Group