I start again. Middle…middle…ring…pinky…pinky…ring…middle…pointer…. “This is crazy!” I say, still playing. And I don’t stop. I finish the first passage, then play the second, and start into the third.
“Now, hold on!” Starner interjects. “Have you played this before?”
“Never,” I say. It’s true -- I never took piano lessons. Befuddled, he inspects the glove and discovers it’s been programmed to vibrate all four phrases of the song -- 61 notes, not 15. Typically, he explains, he and his students teach only one phrase at a time. I approach the keyboard again. I fumble a few tries -- I’m learning, after all -- but within minutes, I can play the melody perfectly. I feel giddy, like I’ve just discovered an innate talent I never knew I had.
“You just know what to do; it’s insane,” Seim notes. She recently taught herself to play “Ode to Joy” by wearing the glove while writing an application for a research grant. “It’s almost like watching a phantom hand.”
Starner and his colleagues believe that the repeated buzzing from the glove creates a muscle memory that enables a wearer to learn to play a song with far less practice than it would take without haptic stimulation. They have also studied the glove’s effect on people with spinal cord injuries and found that it can help them regain some sensation and dexterity in their hands. The researchers are now beginning experiments to test whether haptic gloves can teach braille typing and stenography, evidence that the technology could impart not just patterns but also language.
“We don’t know the limits,” Starner says. “Can we put these sorts of vibration motors on people’s legs and teach them how to dance? Can we teach people how to throw a better baseball?” He mentions a scene from the sci-fi thriller The Matrix in which the film’s heroes, Neo and Trinity, hijack a helicopter: “Can you fly that thing?” Neo asks his right-hand woman. “Not yet,” she says. The film cuts to Trinity’s eyelids flickering as the knowledge pours through a data port at the back of her skull. Seconds later they’re in the air.
“Of course you can’t do that,” I say.
Starner grins. “Not yet.”
For more on the future of wearable computers see “Wearable Computers Will Transform Language.”
Get more from IEEE Spectrum
This article appeared on IEEE Spectrum; all rights reserved.