We are entering a period of bionic arm & hand development that is both exciting and potentially confusing. This article is meant to clarify the most recent options for pattern recognition systems.
A Slowly Unfolding Revolution
It is no secret that dual-site, direct-control myoelectric systems have struggled to deliver adequate user control.
Even though they may deliver a satisfactory solution to a segment of the limb-different community, we have yet to meet anyone who thinks that they are the ultimate solution.
Over the past decade, it has become increasingly clear that myoelectric pattern recognition systems offer far more potential for intuitive use. Systems like Coapt Engineering’s Gen2, Infinite Biomedical Technologies’ Sense, and Ottobock’s Myo Plus have all matured into very capable systems.
Most impressively, these systems have made huge strides in addressing the issues that have been so problematic for direct-control devices, such as signal degradation in different arm positions and the ever-changing conditions of residual limbs (hot, cold, sweaty, tired).
These systems are expensive but they’re also ready to use now, as shown in this Myo Plus video:
The problem for consumers is that just as these solid, reliable pattern recognition systems have begun to enter mainstream use, more revolutionary solutions have appeared on the horizon.
The Promise of a More Transformative Revolution
The BrainRobotics Prosthetic Hand Story
In November of 2018, a video appeared on YouTube of a girl playing the piano with a bionic hand:
The hand in question shares its roots with a company called BrainCo. In early 2020, BrainCo won a couple of awards at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for its Dexus Prosthetic Hand, which again featured an impressive level of control over individual fingers.
At that time, the company told us that they hoped to win FDA approval of the hand by the end of 2020.
After this, BrainCo spun off its bionic hand into a company called BrainRobotics. Now, this new company plans to release two bionic hands: a 2-channel hand in 2021, and a more advanced 8-channel hand sometime after that. Only the 8-channel hand will deliver the kind of control needed to play a piano.
There is a reason that we are telling you this story. On the one hand (pardon the pun), intuitive finger-level control over a bionic hand would be a dream come true for most people with upper-limb differences. On the other hand, commercializing that technology is not an easy task.
The Atom Touch Story
In 2006, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. The goal of this program was to develop a bionic arm that could mimic natural arm and hand movements for any level of amputation.
In 2015, DARPA decided to push the envelope a bit further by launching its Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program. The goal of this program is to enable precision control of a bionic hand and sensory feedback via bi-directional nerve implants.
The Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), developed by Johns Hopkins University (JHU), became the lead project for this second initiative. Here is a look at the MPL during its first take-home trial in 2018:
Role forward two years. The MPL has now entered a new phase where its technology is being commercialized as the Atom Touch from Atom Limbs.
The claims of advanced functionality for the Atom Touch, scheduled to launch in 2022, include:
- user control over the hand that mirrors control of a natural hand, including control over individual fingers;
- wrist and elbow components that mirror the abilities of a natural wrist and elbow;
- advanced sensory feedback including the ability to sense contact, force, position, and velocity (it may also eventually include temperature).
We’re not talking about an incremental improvement over existing bionic arms/hands here; we’re talking about a quantum leap.
According to the company, even the artificial intelligence (AI) component goes well beyond that of existing pattern recognition systems. While we could debate the AI terminology question, what we cannot deny is that any system built on data from 200 sensors has the potential to be a lot more sophisticated than one built on 8 or 16.
Reality vs Hype
BionicsForEveryone.com was founded by someone with 30+ years of experience in the software industry. Even our new CEO and COO have extensive software technology backgrounds.
As such, we are no strangers to hype. For decades, hype dominated the industry and to a certain extent still does.
But speaking as someone who started out using a cassette tape to store a ridiculously small amount of data for a computer that would take minutes just to plot a simple graph, I have to admit that hype did eventually become reality. Indeed, today’s smartphones empowered by AI services in the cloud exceed the early hype in many cases.
So, the question wasn’t really if but when.
We think this is similarly true of a device like the Atom Touch both because of its history of steady technological evolution and because of the reputable research institutes (i.e. DARPA and JHU) behind it.
However, we don’t represent those institutes or companies like Atom Touch or BrainRobotics. We represent people with limb differences, i.e. the end-consumer in all of this. And to those people, timing is critical.
A Question of Timing (and Goals)
Here’s a statement that we feel comfortable making about the existing mainstream pattern recognition companies like Coapt, IBT, and Ottobock (i.e. it’s Myo Plus product): if you purchase one of these systems and you put the required effort into proper training, you will get exactly what they promise. It won’t be Atom Touch or the ability to play the piano, but it will be a notable and reliable upgrade over direct-control myoelectric systems.
Point #2: the mainstream pattern recognition systems are capable of more sophisticated control. They are currently constrained by the devices they’re being asked to control but they do have the capacity to do more.
Point #3: even if those mainstream pattern recognition systems do evolve, there is no way they will match what is being promised by the Atom Touch — at least not in the foreseeable future.
So where does all of this leave you? Atom Limbs is planning to launch the Atom Touch in 2022. Let’s take a cautionary approach and say it may not be available until 2023 instead. If you can a) afford $50K U.S. for just the hand component and b) you’re willing to delay your decision for a few years, why wouldn’t you wait to see whether the Atom Touch will fulfill its promises, or whether BrainRobotics will deliver something part-way there between now and then?
But if you can’t afford $50K U.S. or you don’t want to roll the dice on something that is not yet on the market, then go for one of the mainstream pattern recognition systems.
We don’t have a horse in this race either way. Our job is to make you, our readers, aware of their options. We hope we have done that.
For a look at pattern recognition systems in general, see Myoelectric Pattern Recognition for Bionic Arms & Hands.
To read more about the current leaders in the mainstream pattern recognition market, see Coapt Engineering’s Complete Control System Gen2, IBT’s Sense Pattern Recognition System, and Ottobock’s Myo Plus.
For a good overview of control systems in general, see bionic arm/hand control systems.
If want to learn more about advanced sensory feedback, see our article on neural interfaces for bionic hands.
For a complete description of all current upper-limb technologies, devices, and research, see our comprehensive guide.