University of Glasgow research explores human-machine interfacing

Researchers from the University of Glasgow aim to find a new way to monitor and measure the tiny signals created when nerve cells transmit information to skeletal muscles, through EU-funded research project MAGNABLE.

It is hoped that the project could enable future generations of prosthetic limbs to respond directly to instructions from users’ muscles, and also improve control of digital spaces by removing the need for handheld controllers in virtual or extended reality.

Currently, electromyography (EMG) is the most widely-used method for monitoring muscle activity. It takes readings from electrodes placed on the skin, but the sensitivity is limited by the need to read signals through muscle and skin. This limitation makes it difficult for EMG to be used in human-machine interface devices such as prosthetics.

Over the next two years, the MAGNABLE team will work to develop a new human-machine interface capable of producing high-resolution, low-noise scans of muscle activity by measuring muscles’ magnetic fields.

A proposed alternative to EMG is magnetomyography (MMG), a technique for mapping muscle activity by recording the magnetic fields produced by electrical currents occurring naturally in the muscles. At the moment, MMG is challenging to use for muscle activity monitoring as the amplitude of magnetic signals from muscles is small enough for the geomagnetic field to interfere with readings. To overcome this, the MAGNABLE system plans to build on recent developments from the University of Glasgow’s Microelectronics Lab, in which researchers have developed miniaturised magnetic sensors to measure the magnetic field with the sensitivity required to enable muscle activity monitoring.

The project plans to use this to develop a microchip which can read MMG data from muscles, whilst screening out background noise. Once the microchip is finalised, university spinout Neuranics Ltd will look to bring it to market to enable new forms of human-machine interaction.

“MMG has a great deal of potential to produce the kind of high-resolution data that we’ll need in order to create highly capable neural interfaces which can be controlled by muscle movements, just like real limbs,” said Professor Hadi Heidari, MAGNABLE’s principal investigator. “The technology we’re developing could also be incorporated into arm bands or other wearable devices to enable realistic interactions with virtual and extended reality.”

MAGNABLE is supported by the European Union’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.