PluggedIn: Gesture tech eyes growth

April 21, 2010

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By Unnikrishnan Nair and Mansi Dutta, in Bangalore

Gesture-recognition technology is set to motion in a new level of interactivity in everything from games to phones, and poses a serious challenge to the ubiquitous mouse and remote controls.

The technology works by tracking and interpreting hand and body movements of users, and is viewed by many as the next game changer in consumer electronics. Users can just wave their hands in front of a screen to bring up control menus and select the relevant option by pointing a finger. They can zoom pictures, raise and lower volume, switch on and off devices, or do just about anything they can with a mouse or a remote, all with different gestures.

Video game consoles are leading the way. Like Sony’s motion-sensing game console for its PlayStation 3, its answer to Nintendo’s popular Wii.

Microsoft’s “Project Natal” — to be launched around Christmas this year — packs a clutch of technologies for users of Xbox 360, including gesture and object recognition. Hitachi has already demonstrated the technology on televisions, but says it is still to decide on how and when to bring it to the market.

The technology has been in use in industrial and medical applications for some time now, but was too expensive to be used in consumer devices.

“We had our technology running for quite a few years now — some seven years, but cameras were never on the market and available in terms of cost that is affordable,” said California-based GestureTek Chief Executive Vincent John Vincent.

GestureTek is a leader in creating gesture-responding applications in outdoor advertising and medical rehabilitation systems. Its interactive video walls, for instance, allow users to create wall art with gestures, or to interact with projected floor ads by, say, stepping on them.

Vincent said his company plans to unveil a giant 70-feet display wall at a theme park shortly, but declined to give details. The technology works by using 3D cameras, which project infrared light on to users, and then tracking the reflected light to measure body movements, such as the wave of a hand.

Companies are jockeying to get their hands on the technology — 3D cameras, chips, etc — and making large investments being made in the last two years. In 2009 Microsoft snapped up Israel-based 3DV Systems, one of a handful of makers of 3D cameras. Hitachi has partnered with GestureTek and Sunnyvale, California-based Canesta, a maker of low-cost 3D chips. And 3D imaging technology provider Softkinetic-Optrima SA is working to adapt its gesture-recognition platform and software for Intel and Texas Instruments’ processors.

For the makers of the nuts-and-bolts of gesture technology, the payoff could be great.

The market for consumer and mobile microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) — tiny motion sensors used in iPhone and the PS3 controller — is expected to touch $1.5 billion this year and top $2.5 billion in 2013, according to a recent research report by analyst Jérémie Bouchaud at iSuppli.

“We believe the market for 3D gesture control will be as big as the mobile telephone market. The reason for that is 3D gestures (technology) apply to video games, television, PC and to consumer appliances. It’s going to become very pervasive,” said Michel Tombroff, chief  executive of Brussels, Belgium-based Softkinetic.

As popular as gesture may become in video games and televisions, it is smartphones which could flourish in the mainstream.

Right now, touchscreens take a lot of cognitive load and demand a lot of gesture karate_kick cropattention, especially when driving, says IDC’s Stofega. And voice-recognition is still bedeviled by some very basic problems – such as differentiating between accents and filtering background noise.

“So something like (gesture) could fill the void between touch and auditory interfaces,” Stofega added.  ”I think the challenge is where do you put it and how much is it going to cost and how much mass market demand is there for it,” he says. “In a cell phone/mobile world there is limited real estate, power availability, a very different environment, and limitations in terms of cost.”

“I think it will be a slow evolution. It could take two to five years,” says Vincent.

(Media: Youtube,  Canesta)

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