Dr. Martin Labrecque’s startup, tucked away on the fourth floor of the University of Toronto’s Best Institute, isn’t like one I’ve ever seen. It’s not flashy. There are no haute graphic posters making audacious use of negative space. The furniture isn’t accented in chrome. But for what Labrecque’s company, BreqLabs, lacks in corporate pizzazz, it more than makes up for in its robust vision.
For the past two years, Labrecque has been hard at work bringing to life the ExoGlove. Essentially a wearable mouse, it can be used to interact with laptops, gaming systems, and virtual reality headsets. Given the right applications, it could change the way users manipulate any object that contains a computer chip. Based on current trajectories, that might very well be everything.
Like the aspirations of his startup, Labrecque’s knowledge is expansive. In our hour-long talk, he brings up everything from retinal projectors to the difficulties of finding a seamstress willing to work with him on the intricacies of his new design.
He shows me various models of the ExoGlove; the earliest is bulky, like a winter garment. A later incarnation is primarily mesh. My favourite model reminds me of the robotic arm in Terminator 2, its spindly fingers designed to creep over the back of the hand. “It has to be fashionable,” he says, or nobody will want it.
But despite its tentative outward appearance, Labrecque says the ExoGlove “does exactly what it’s supposed to.” Gesture-based interfacing is not a new idea, but most technologies, such as Oculus Rift, incorporate optical tracking rather than a wearable sensor, meaning that the user’s hands always need to stay where the stationary camera can see them. “We want to make it more immersive by bringing in a greater range of movement,” Labrecque says. “If I have to stick my hands in my face, does it really work well?”
In a possible near future, when computer displays transcend their current glass-monitored prison — think Tom Cruise’s wall-sized, holographic computer screen in Minority Report — the ExoGlove will reach its full potential. Likewise, if the imminent “Internet of Things” vision pans out, then the ExoGlove could act like a remote control for everything from the front door to the thermostat. A simple flick of the wrist could turn on the lights; a come-hither gesture would summon a robotic assistant.
Alternately, if Microsoft’s HoloLens gains traction, the ExoGlove could control virtual objects with the extra benefit of allowing us to feel whatever we’re picking up or pushing aside. Wearable interfacing adds a dimension of touch, an extra sensation that augments virtual reality. This “haptic feedback” could allow the user to feel the fur of a digital pet or the weight of a baseball bat. Whatever the specifics, the human environment of the future will be ambiently intelligent, and the ExoGlove is a useful way to access and control that intelligence.
But that future is distant enough to keep Labrecque working in the present, steadfastly building his company and ironing out the kinks. Initially, his idea for the ExoGlove was based on user accessibility: the elderly and differently-abled, he noticed, were left out of the digital realm, unable to control track pads and computer mice with shaky or paralyzed hands. The ExoGlove would give these users access to devices that most of us take for granted.
Within such a comparatively small market, however, funding is scarce. Labrecque was forced to market the ExoGlove as a suitable controller for gaming systems, particularly those based in virtual reality. With dual applicability, he hopes, the ExoGlove will get the financial support it needs to become a tool for every user.
“We have a patient now we’re working with, and he can’t move anything except for a small movement with his hand. So we translate that little movement into something useful,” he says.
Inventing the ExoGlove hasn’t been motivated by a desire for renown or wealth. Labrecque just seems to want a hand in making a better future. Walking out the doors of BreqLabs, I couldn’t help but be sorry that it’s only 2015. My childhood dreams of being a superhero with telekinetic powers were revived. But since these were the days when Kid Pix was the most exciting computer app in existence, it was difficult to imagine that the near future might let me communicate with distant objects — real and virtual — by slipping on a simple glove.
Most students aren’t aware of this, but within its Mordorian ramparts, Robarts contains a high-tech laboratory staffed primarily by excitable PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.
I follow the signs up to the seventh floor, where I’m directed to the Semaphore Research Cluster on Mobile and Pervasive Computing, which sounds sinister enough. Despite the lab’s ominous moniker, however, Dr. Isaac Record, an engineer and philosopher who works in the emerging discipline of Critical Making, gives a warm greeting. He’s tasked with determining how the future will unify its many disparate technologies, and what problems individual users will use these technologies to solve.
Record leads me into the “fishbowl,” a glass-walled room containing three large additive printers — one of them suspiciously named Hal—and other machines that complement the lab’s “Making” ability. Their setup is simple and efficient: brainstorm at one table with paper and markers, digitize and model the ideas at the next table on computers, and then send the information to one of the printers.
I’m shown an array of objects the lab has manufactured. Record has a replica of himself austerely reading a book, made with the aid of the human-scale 3D scanner in Semaphore’s lobby. Dan Southwick, one of the lab’s PhD students, shows me a mesh-bodied creature akin to a hippopotamus, inexplicably adorned with orange antlers — I’m told later that it’s actually a bird feeder, strong and lightweight, and the antlers act as perches. It was made through a “fused filament fabrication” machine, a type of 3D printer that works much like a very adroit glue gun.
But Semaphore is not just a place for techies to make toys. The U of T–funded research cluster studies how divergent social groups use emergent technology. It’s a social sciences approach to the purposes for our ever-smarter machines. As Southwick puts it, “our focus is on the meta.”
One of Semaphore’s mandates includes studying the personalization of design. Participatory manufacturing allows individuals to express their own needs and desires, like when Record co-designed a tennis ball for the visually impaired with members of the Toronto Blind Tennis Club, or the lab’s foray into printing customized prosthetic limbs.
Any student at U of T can use the lab, and on Friday mornings the fishbowl even welcomes the general public — much to the delight of over-the-shoulder peerers Record and Southwick, perpetually fascinated as they are by human-machine interaction.
Ultimately, additive manufacturing will permit us to express ourselves within a framework of self-directed fabrication. No longer limited by the expense of small production runs, custom parts can be printed cheaply, allowing engineers — Labrecque included — to invent new technologies without the traditional manufacturing restrictions on time and output.
As for the future of additive printing, I can’t help but ask if it’ll one day become the revolutionary Trekkian fabricator we all hope it will be. Record is skeptical.
“Maybe in the very distant future everybody will have a vat of protons that gets turned into stuff,” he answers. “But that would be such an energy consumptive process that I’m going to say it’ll happen after fusion.”
The lab has worked around the technology for long enough that, despite its paradigm-shifting benefits, they can see its limits. As Southwick mentions, “We just don’t want any more plastic crap in our lives.”
“Do you really need it in your life all the time? That’s a question we’ve dealt with. We don’t have an answer to it,” he adds.
The field is far from having all the answers. Whether ambient intelligence, wearable devices, and pervasive computing will ultimately change the world for the better remains to be seen.
What is certain is that we have never before been so intimately connected with our tools — after all, it’s difficult to maintain rapport with a wood axe. But, this intimate relationship also impacts our autonomy in a culture defined by invasive corporate interests and powered by Big Data.
Ensuring that our devices do not become a vehicle for ulterior agendas poses a major challenge to users, one that labs like Semaphore actively work to resolve. Keeping a critical eye on what the future holds will give us a chance to leverage these tools appropriately, in order to express ourselves in extensive and formidable ways. From what it seems, the possibilities are endless.