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Futurism: Gaming Gesture Controls The Next Generation?

3d futureThere have been a lot of evolutionary changes in how people use the Internet and computing technology but when it comes to direct forms of human interaction, things have moved slowly.  Despite advances in touch screens and voice automation we still rely principally on the decades old technology of keyboards and mice. We still do most of our web interaction through browsers.    Despite the vast increases in processing power when it comes to machine interaction, we’ve only moved in small steps.

The lack of innovation isn’t because existing technologies were perfect, or without need of improvement.  It’s just that technology changes faster than peoples habits.  When it comes to communication, we move slowly.  The QWERTY keyboard, after all, was invented by Christopher Sholes in 1874.  We still use it.  It’s not perfect but it works and we’re used to it.

Major change comes slow.  When it does come, one of the requirements is simplicity.  Anything new has to be easy to use.  It also has to be better than what we already have; and the longer we’ve been using an existing method, the greater the margin the improvement will need to be.   Lastly, to break a technology out of the lab and get it accepted on Main Street, it helps if a new interface is bundled with something desirable.

With these constraints in mind, Apple, arguably, has done more to advance how people work with computers and electronics than any other company in recent memory.  From early iPod touch wheels to the touch screen and gestural controls in the iPhone, they’ve helped shift consumer expectation as well as the course of the electronics industry.

When the Nintendo Wii came along, it too shifted markets.  Even though sometimes awkward, its motion activated controls and ease of use have created a new paradigm, one with massive consumer appeal and a high dose of fun factor.  Nintendo’s innovations have even trickled beyond gaming to other industries from science to military.

Looking to the future, a handful of companies are trying to answer the question of what’s next.  A few in particular, are looking to take the Wii’s gestural inputs and advance them to the next generation.


SOFT KINETIC: The Software Solution
In recent history, if an animator or scientist wanted to capture natural movement digitally, they’d dress a test subject in a dark bodysuit affixed with specially placed reflectors.  Located on joints and key places, the dots of light bounced off the person under a strobe could be filmed, analyzed and otherwise recorded into digital wire frame animations and stick figures; the reflectors acting like the movement of skeletal bones.

In the gaming world, body gesture control required somewhat similar (though less sophisticated) wearable products, be it in the form of a glove or some other wearable device.

Along comes Soft Kinetic.  Derived from research labs at the University of Brussels and launched in 2007, the company is working on specialized software that does all the heavy lifting.  And unlike past efforts, instead of wearable devices, their applications rely solely on data generated by current market depth sensing 3D cameras.

While an extreme simplification, these camera’s shoot out beams (or grids) of infrared light and then measure the reflected light to create a 3D map.  Soft Kinetics software takes the resultant 3D image and cuts out the background to leave just the images of a person.  As CEO Michel Tombroff told MIT’s Technology Review, in a gaming example, it can “classify the scene so we know how to find the player and remove the rest, and reconstruct the person’s structure.”  The software can also help filter down to just a single body part.

In the hands of a gaming company, changing measurements of movement from frame to frame (made possible by Soft Kinetics middleware) can be used to translate actual movement into game activity.  These advances have the potential to turn the entire body into a wireless game controller. They could turn fitness activities in to entertainment, or advance industrial applications too.

PRIME SENSE: The Hardware Guys
For many computing challenges, there are often competing hardware and software solutions.  Tel Aviv’s Prime Sense is hoping to be the hardware counterpart to Soft Kinetics application software.

Founded in 2005, the company is built around an innovative system on a chip solution for the field now sometimes called “3D Machine Vision.”

The company’s product, called Prime Sensor, bundles an image sensor, infrared light and the artificial intelligence to convert raw data into something useful into one device. 

In the company’s words, it is “a device, which allows a computer to perceive the world in 3D and derive an understanding of the world based on sight, just the way humans do.”

The promise of this is a device that can see and track movement regardless of environment or lighting conditions and without the need for a wearable component.  It’s also a USB device that’s platform agnostic.  In gaming, it could in theory bring gesture control to the PS3 or the Xbox 360.

Funding development, the company has raised $29.4million in venture capital.  That includes $9m drawn in August 2006 and another $20.4m announced this week.   Canaan Partners led the new round and prior investors Gemini Israel and Genesis Partners also participated.

Reportedly, a consumer application of the technology is due in the near future and at least one electronics maker has quietly partnered with the company.

Bill Gates talked about it during his January CES speech, and whether its three years from now or ten, it will one day become common.  Our natural body movements and gestures will one day be able to control electronics with a high level of sophistication. 

Imagine – a video game that needs no controller.  Imagine a TV screen that drops down or rises when you wave your arm at it.  Imagine, a computer that recognizes a hand wave as a sign to power off and shut down.   This is part of the future.

Whether it’s gaming, consumer electronics, or some other application, “ubiquitous computing” is on the horizon.  Companies like Soft Kinetic, Prime Sense or 3DV systems are among the startups hoping to lead the charge of innovation.   Up there with Sony’s amazing folding display screens, Microsoft’s Surface initiatives  and Kodak’s futuristic camera concepts, gesture interfaces may be a slow race but the results will be fun to watch.


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