DextrEMS: Increasing Dexterity in Electrical Muscle Stimulation by Combining it with Brakes

Romain Nith, Shan-Yuan Teng, Pengyu Li, Yujie Tao, Pedro Lopes

UIST Best Demo Award (People’s Choice)


Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) is an emergent technique that miniaturizes force feedback, especially popular for untethered haptic devices, such as mobile gaming, VR, or AR. However, the actuation displayed by interactive systems based on EMS is coarse and imprecise. EMS systems mostly focus on inducing movements in large muscle groups such as legs, arms, and wrists; whereas individual finger poses, which would be required, for example, to actuate a user’s fingers to fingerspell even the simplest letters in sign language, are not possible. The lack of dexterity in EMS stems from two fundamental limitations: (1) lack of independence: when a particular finger is actuated by EMS, the current runs through nearby muscles, causing unwanted actuation of adjacent fingers; and, (2) unwanted oscillations: while it is relatively easy for EMS to start moving a finger, it is very hard for EMS to stop and hold that finger at a precise angle; because, to stop a finger, virtually all EMS systems contract the opposing muscle, typically achieved via controllers (e.g., PID)—unfortunately, even with the best controller tuning, this often results in unwanted oscillations. To tackle these limitations, we propose dextrEMS, an EMS-based haptic device featuring mechanical brakes attached to each finger joint. The key idea behind dextrEMS is that while the EMS actuates the fingers, it is our mechanical brake that stops the finger in a precise position. Moreover, it is also the brakes that allow dextrEMS to select which fingers are moved by EMS, eliminating unwanted movements by preventing adjacent fingers from moving. We implemented dextrEMS as an untethered haptic device, weighing only 68g, that actuates eight finger joints independently (metacarpophalangeal and proximal interphalangeal joints for four fingers), which we demonstrate in a wide range of haptic applications, such as assisted fingerspelling, a piano tutorial, guitar tutorial, and a VR game. Finally, in our technical evaluation, we found that dextrEMS outperformed EMS alone by doubling its independence and reducing unwanted oscillations.

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