Devices

The Dash Front and Back

The Dash (by Bragi) Review

The Dash is made by a German company, Bragi, and was funded by a Kickstarter campaign with almost 16,000 backers contributing 3.4 million USD. According to Bragi’s marketing department, these are the world’s first wireless smart earphones. They’re quite expensive and are priced at 299 USD, excluding shipping and GST. For all the details on features and specifications, check out the product page. Bear in mind that a long list of features does not equate to a “smart” device.

My primary purpose for The Dash would be to use it for running, and it does seem to be targeted towards more active users. I have tried numerous ear/head phones and none have met my expectations. Yurbuds Inspire worked well for a few runs, but then the silicon ear pieces got dirty and wouldn’t clean well. This caused them to lose most of their hold and they’d slip out of my ears and pop off the earphones. I also could never get the right fit (no matter how many combinations I tried) with the wireless Jaybird Bluebuds X. These couldn’t handle running, and a combination of the natural bouncing and sweat would cause them to eventually become dislodged.

Yurbuds and Jaybird

Left: Yurbuds with their twist-lock silicon ear pieces (Source); Right: Jaybird’s outer ear clip  (Source)

The constant need to readjust the earpieces of both products made running with them annoying; especially if I was out for an hour or so. It got to the point where I eventually stopped running with music.

The Good

Music and Playlists

The fact that there is 4 GB of storage and the option of storing up to 4 different playlists means  there is some decent flexibility in terms of what music you can queue up. Audio quality itself is fine, and the ability to switch between up-tempo or more motivational playlists is a useful feature, because you can adjust the style of music to suit your run type.

Fit

To avoid getting sweat into your ears and causing earphones to slip out, there needs to be a pretty much perfect seal around the earphone in the ear. As soon as the seal is compromised, you get earphone slippage and battling to keep them in then becomes the main focus of a run. The Dash fit me well. In order to get a good seal I had to manipulate my ear and try open up the ear canal a bit more so I could shove each ear piece in tightly.

seal

The best kind of seal (Source)

Once in, The Dash stayed in place, and lasted me up to an hour (the length of my longest run) without falling out or slipping. During this time, a lot of sweat was generated and I’m quite sure The Dash would have been fine for longer runs. In my book, this is a huge plus. Earphones that actually stay in with no adjustments required. The seal feels tighter than that of the Bluebuds and I found the security of the twisting mechanism similar to the Yurbuds.

If a secure fit was the only thing I was looking for, The Dash would be perfect for me. However, I’m a bit fussier than that and unfortunately, there is quite a long list of reasons as to why I won’t be getting my own set any time soon.

The Bad

Fit

Once you get a good fit, The Dash sits in the ears wonderfully. However, it is absolutely crucial that you get the perfect fit right off the bat. I found it quite difficult to tell until I actually started running, by which time it was too late. If any sweat makes it through the seal, no amount of ear-pulling or Dash shoving will ever reinstate it.

img_0160._6-pcs-do-not-accept-if-seal-is-broken-packing-white-tapes-2-inch-x65-met-

My mantra for earphones (Source)

I also wore The Dash casually (not running) and found that after half an hour, my ears were getting a little tender and I had to take them out. This may have been caused by the steps I had to take to get a good seal, but this discomfort wasn’t experienced while running.

Controls

The Dash uses an optical touch sensor to detect taps and swipes for controlling all of its features (music, activity tracking and feedback, audio transparency, etc.). This works pretty well when you’re stationary – but the actions of swiping, tapping and holding the earpieces while moving become significantly more difficult.

The problem is that the entire control interface of The Dash revolves around touching it in some way that could break the seal and completely undo any sort of “PerfectFit” you managed to achieve. Even then, because pretty much every part of the body is bouncing around, the wrong commands are often sent.

A gesture-based interface would work with no contact. Even my phone can pick up when I’m waving at it, so that should be possible for core commands.

Audio Transparency

The idea behind allowing ambient noise to pass through to improve situational awareness and safety, is a good one. The Audio Transparency of The Dash works well… when you’re not moving. Once I started actually moving quickly, I found that the Audio Transparency pretty much picks up and amplifies all the sounds around you. Including wind. If you want to see what it sounds like running through a tornado, turn it on while running. I didn’t get a chance to try it in the shower or while swimming, but I imagine it would sound like you were banging your head against a tsunami.

wind.png

Ahh… that nice breeze (You can find a hundred of these photos here)

So… I turned that feature off. An update to the firmware of The Dash that includes some audio filtering could help with removing the noise. I could barely hear my music over the amplified wind.

Heart Rate Monitoring

I’m not sure how The Dash measures heart rate. The device has told me numerous times to adjust the earpiece to get a better recording but I was not willing to compromise a good seal if I have one. Sensors listed on the product page include the optical touch sensor, and 3-axes accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer – none of which can really be used to measure heart rate. So that has me confused.

When I did have it positioned correctly I felt like the heart rate quoted to me was lower than expected, and I suspect it’s influenced by cadence. Unfortunately, I don’t have an actual heart rate monitor to compare against. However, based on my pace, how I felt and my experience with heart rates, I am quite confident the values quoted to me by The Dash were significantly off.

Battery

The really cool thing about The Dash is that its case doubles as a charger. Supposedly this can restore both earphones to full charge up to five times. Combined with the play and track time of approximately 3 hours and the standby time of 250 hours, you would think that you wouldn’t need to charge The Dash that often.

I don’t know how they came up with those figures but my experience was way off. For some reason, I had complete discharge of the charger and earphones after a week of non-use. And from full charge I got the audio low battery prompt after about 50 minutes of running.

battery

Think my battery may have been leaking (Source)

I probably need to test battery performance more thoroughly, but those were my initial findings.

Miscellaneous

Just a couple of minor gripes. It took me a while to get my phone to pair with The Dash over Bluetooth. I don’t know which device’s fault it was, but finding and eventually connecting to them took several attempts. Once connected, I again hit a wall in trying to connect The Dash to the Bragi Android app, and after several attempts, I gave up.

I did not like how cadence was reported as a total. This isn’t a Fitbit – knowing I’ve taken 2,417 steps over the last 15 minutes is not a useful metric. Steps/minute would be far more informative.

Conclusion

I’ve neglected to mention many of the finer selling points of The Dash, and instead focussed on disappointing features. I would honestly be perfectly happy with something that just stays in my ears and plays music on shuffle. I don’t even need the ability to change tracks or store more than 50 songs.

For the price point and features offered by The Dash, I would expect them to work well – and that is my main problem with it. The impressive list of features that I’d rather not use because of their sub-par performance, makes them redundant and means the near 600 NZD final price tag is far too high.

The Dash is a well-designed and well-intended piece of hardware, but lacks a little in the execution and testing with actual, active users. It may be the world’s first smart wireless earphones, but The Dash would need to get a little smarter before I’d consider buying it. Perhaps fewer features done better would be a good start.

I’m looking forward to either firmware updates, or Bragi’s next version: The Dot.

(haaaaaaa, I’m so funny *cries*)

 

P.S. Does anyone have a pair of running earphones they swear by? Absolutely must stay in, and have local storage for music. That’s pretty much all I need.

Myo by Thalmic Labs Review

At last! It’s time to write a commentary on something I actually may have an expert opinion on. Maybe. I received my pre-ordered Myo last week all the way from Thalmic Labs in Toronto. Interestingly, I only got it a month or so after people I knew who had pre-ordered it significantly before me (around the time it was first announced). Goes to show it is possible for tech companies to sort out their production to meet current demand (*cough* OnePlus *cough*).

The Myo. Source: Thalmic Labs Inc.

The Myo is an armband or chunky bracelet that sits high on the forearm, just below the elbow. It allows the wearer to control software applications and physical devices through movements that are recognised by its 9-axis IMU (combined gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer). Its unique feature is the usage of the electromyography or EMG signals of the muscles in the forearm.

Basically, the Myo is able to detect different forearm muscle contraction patterns and link them with motions such as making a fist, spreading the fingers or pivoting the hand. Such recognition can occur without the forearm (and Myo) moving at all. Combined with the IMU, this provides the Myo with the ability to sense control gestures and actions of the hand and fingers. Easy parallels can be drawn to the gloved system in Minority Report or the gesture-based computers at Tony Startk’s disposal in Iron Man and Avengers.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report and Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man. Both using natural interfacing methods. Sources: Bit Rebels and Astronaut

Tom Cruise in Minority Report and Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man. Both using natural interfacing methods. Sources: Bit Rebels and Astronaut

I did my postgraduate studies on using the EMG signal as a control method for prostheses or exoskeleton devices – a slightly more difficult problem because the aim was to provide continuous control, for example reproduce an intended trajectory, which requires constant monitoring for changes in muscle activity of antagonistic muscle pairs. The Myo is slightly more simplistic (and therefore consumer-ready) because it only needs to recognise particular snapshots of muscle activity. And it does, really well.

Pros

For a new technology, Thalmic have done an extraordinary job in facilitating the process of getting the Myo out of its nicely and efficiently packaged box, onto your forearm and recognising control gestures. Instructions are very clear, and it’s the little things, like checks to make sure the Bluetooth dongle is attached properly and demonstration videos that exemplify each step, which really make the difference. Any Luddite would be able to do it – and that signifies a fantastic user experience.

The Myo itself works. There is no over-promising of its ability to recognise gestures. Out of the box, allow it 2-4 minutes to stabilise and you’ll be able to use it immediately. The gesture library is currently quite limited but there are a few to choose from:

Gestures

The basic Myo gestures. Source: Thalmic Labs Inc.

Obviously, the muscle activity required to produce these gestures are the easiest to differentiate, but it shows Thalmic have carefully considered what gestures to use and how to use them. This is reinforced by the “wake-up” command (double tap of the thumb and middle finger), which tells the Myo to start listening for a gesture. The feature prevents false positives, or unintended gestures from carrying through to the device being controlled.

Combinations of gestures can be used to generate a secondary tier of commands. For example, an opened hand followed by a clenched fist could generate an action on its own. This opens up further possibilities for control and actions once a user becomes proficient at stringing different commands together.

The Myo itself is comfortable. I’ve worn it for longer periods of time (20-30 min) and have not yet experienced discomfort. It also comes with adjustment clips for if you have smaller forearms. I don’t think there’s an alternative for larger forearms, but all I’ve had to deal with are those skin depressions that fade after some time. I’m hoping to eventually see how it feels after an hour or more of use.

Thalmic has its own Myo app market, called the Myo Market. It contains the “connectors” that are currently compatible with the Myo and allow you to use it to move your mouse, manipulate your web browser (all the good ones are supported: Chrome, Firefox and Safari), change presentation slides or control your media player (Spotify, VLC, iTunes and WMP are all supported). The connectors allow you to integrate Myo with a host of other applications and games, such as Minecraft, Popcorn Time, and even Saints Row IV, but I have yet to test them out. There’s even a connector for Trello, which at the time of writing is the only productivity tool supported.

Cons

The Myo is relatively new, and although their developer program has been active for a while (still a little butthurt I didn’t get in…), I expect more and more connectors to come out soon to further populate the Market. At the moment, I feel like there isn’t enough functionality for a user to completely integrate the Myo into their interfacing experience. It’s not much use when you can only use it for certain (and a few) apps.

My other main issue is that there’s no over-arching system that ties all the connectors together. For example, to use the Spotify connector, the Spotify window has to be in focus. I therefore either need to alt-tab or mouse click the Spotify window before I can perform the gesture that I want. Cutting the Myo out of the process is faster and easier. However, if I can tell Spotify specifically to listen for the next gesture, and other apps to ignore it, I won’t need to disrupt my current workflow. To me this seems like an app selector is needed that could be like a weapon selection wheel commonly found in games where the protagonist can carry a gazillion weapons. I’m going to take this idea to the developer forums to see if it can gain some traction.

The weapon selection wheel in GTA V. Source: GTA Wiki

As I said before, the gestures are quite simple, and I expect additional base gestures to be added as the recognition algorithms of the Myo are improved. More complex movements will allow more to be done and faster. At the moment, because the gestures are focussed on movements emphasising polarity, it can get quite tiring quickly when a multitude of gestures are used in sequence. Even more so, when such range of motion of the wrist isn’t often used.

The IMU works well and can accurately sense movement. Its main function so far is to operate as a dial when rotating the forearm (for example as a volume knob), or as a panning tool (for example moving a cursor). The problem I’ve found, especially with the panning, is that when this is combined with a gesture, there is quite a bit a drift. This makes it difficult to use the features in tandem with gestures. I gave up trying to click on buttons using the mouse connector. Some sort of compensation is required.

It is also limited by its position close to the elbow. The data available to it isn’t as rich as it would be if it was around the palm for example. This is particularly evident during rotation, as the wrist experiences more natural rotation than the upper forearm. Getting the upper forearm to rotate is slightly awkward without straightening the elbow. I am however, interested to see how this might be overcome.

Finally, if you watch the promotional video of the Myo, and compare it to what you can do now you’ll find that some of the applications were only ideas. While definitely feasible, not all of them are available yet, such as smart home or robotics control. However, I believe support for them are coming – just don’t get your hopes up too early.

Conclusion

The Cons are really points of improvement, and Thalmic and the developer community are probably working hard to address them. The Myo is certainly an innovative product and has the potential to reshape how we interact with technology. Much of its success depends on developers, and on how they exploit its features to provide a seamless, intuitive and natural interfacing method. I especially look forward to more connectors being developed for productivity apps. Hopefully I’ll have the time to provide some input, as I do want to see it grow and improve. I really want to be able to wear it constantly and have my environment respond to my wishes without need for visual displays or feedback. Not only that, but I believe the Myo has the potential to really enhance our existing interfacing experiences. The hard part, is figuring out how.

Bonus clip: Demo of using the Myo to control the Parrot AR.Drone quadcopter. The implementation is basic (leverages mostly off the IMU data), but it’s a good example of where the technology could be used.