The glove looks humdrum, like a garment you might pick up at a sporting-goods store. It’s made of soft black leather and fingerless, like a cyclist’s or weightlifter’s glove. The similarity is, however, deceiving.
"I have a glove that can teach you how to play a piano melody,” Thad Starner declares when I call to chat about the future of wearable computing. Now a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the technical lead of Google Glass, he helped pioneer the field in the 1990s as a student at MIT. “During this conversation, you could have learned ‘Amazing Grace.’ ”
“Really?” I say. “While we’re talking?”
“Sure,” he says and invites me to Atlanta to see for myself.
Caitlyn Seim, a Ph.D student, slips the glove onto my hand. Inside each of the five finger holes she has sewn a flat vibration motor. The five tiny vibrators, which perch atop my digits like gemstones on rings, are wired to a microcontroller on the back of my hand. Seim has programmed it to fire the motors in the same sequence that my fingers would strike keys on a piano.
But she doesn’t tell me which tune I’ll be learning. “You’ll just feel a little buzzing,” she says, flipping on the electronics. Then Starner whisks me away to show off his lab’s myriad other projects: a language-translation app for Google Glass, a magnetic tongue implant for voicing silent commands to a computer, a smart vest to help divers communicate with dolphins, smart chew toys to help police dogs communicate with handlers, and all manner of other wonderfully wacky wearables.
Once every minute for the next two hours, the motors in the glove vibrate across my fingers. I try to figure out the pattern: buzz (middle finger), buzz, buzz, buzz (ring finger), buzz, buzz ... uh.. crap. "IMPOSSIBLE," I write in my notebook.
At last, Starner escorts me to a keyboard. He plays the first passage of a song -- 15 notes that the glove has supposedly taught me. I recognize the tune. It’s Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I take off the glove.
“Start here,” Starner says, hitting the first note. I lay my fingers on the keys. Middle finger…middle finger…ring finger… “I don’t know,” I say, embarrassed.
“Don’t think about it,” Starner says.