Touchless smartphones and TVs could be on sale in 2012
- 19 December 2011
- From the section Technology
So you've lost your TV remote control. Again.
Not to worry, says a tiny Israeli start-up company called XTR3D - soon you'll be able to flick through channels and adjust the volume using only... your hand.
You'll just have to turn your palm towards the screen, and zap away without ever getting off the couch.
And no need for under-the-skin electronics or fancy microchips.
Instead, the TV - or rather gesture recognition software installed inside - will "read" your moves and execute appropriate commands, without any need for physically pressing any buttons.
Based in Tel Aviv, XTR3D is one of the developers of such motion capture technology, and it has just received $8m (£5m) investment bound to give "touchless" tech another push - and according to the firm, bring the first motion control smartphone into the market as early as next year.
US electronics giant Texas Instruments is among the investors.
Although the Israeli firm follows in the footsteps of Microsoft's Kinect, the multi-directional gesture control gaming console that was launched last year and has since been selling like hot cakes despite the average $200 price tag, its technology is quite different.
The Kinect has depth sensors, multi-array microphones and RGB cameras that provide the software with the information it needs to track both voice and gestures.
XTR3D, on the other hand, uses ordinary 2D cameras - such as a webcam of a computer or the one in your smartphone - to extract 3D out of a 2D image.
This creates the same three-dimensional effect as on the Kinect.
According to the Tel Aviv start-up's spokesman Roy Ramati, XTR3D's technology has all the advantages of a 3D camera without any of the disadvantages - it can work in broad daylight, is much cheaper and uses a lot less power.
"And it can be installed into any consumer electronics device," adds Mr Ramati.
Dor Givon, XTR3D's founder and chief technical officer, adds that it is even possible to play a proper Kinect game on a regular laptop that has the software, touchlessly controlling the device from a distance of a few centimetres to up to 5m away.
And, he says, anyone will be able to afford it.
"Our target is to penetrate the market, so it will be something for everyone to try out," says Mr Givon.
"New devices will have the interface embedded in them, with older ones you will be able to download the software from the app store."
Besides gaming and switching TV channels, the existing prototypes include a PC where it is possible to flip through a PowerPoint presentation just by waving your hand, a tablet and a smartphone that have features such as using gestures to create the effect of a joystick, to click, swipe, zoom in and out with a pinch gesture, and a GPS device that can be controlled touchlessly while driving.
Ultrasound and optical
Despite being at the forefront of gesture-controlled technology, XTR3D is not the only firm aiming to make our world touchless.
Various kinds of motion detection have been around for a while.
For instance, simple gesture recognition such as hovering your hand near a water tap or a toilet flush to activate them are becoming more and more common.
And after Microsoft paved the way with Kinect, bringing new digital dimensions to the gaming world, other companies followed.
Microsoft itself is now actively trying to expand Kinect's use into other industries.
Recently, it announced that it would release a commercial version of the Kinect software development kit in early 2012.
Microsoft has also teamed up with about 200 businesses in more than 20 countries - among them car manufacturer Toyota and digital advertising firm Razorfish - for Kinect to reach well beyond gaming.
"The Kinect can sense your entire body for interaction with the device, and we're only scratching the surface of what can be done because beyond computing there's a lot of scenarios where this kind of natural user interaction could be really powerful, a real paradigm shift," says Shahram Izadi, a researcher from the Microsoft Research Centre in Cambridge, England.
And the creator of the chip that powers the motion-sensing part of the Kinect, an Israeli company called PrimeSense, is now selling a gadget that has the same hardware as Microsoft's device.
Once hooked up to a regular computer, it can provide a Kinect-like experience without the Kinect.
Apple has also filed patents that involve allowing users to touchlessly "throw" content from one device to another, for example from a tablet onto your TV screen.
Another electronics giant, mobile chip maker Qualcomm, has recently bought a small Canadian firm GestureTek.
It targets three devices: tablets (including eReaders), smartphones and TVs, and uses a combination of cameras and ultrasound.
Ultrasound sensors are there for close range "no-look" gesture control - they pick up movements with help of a microphone instead of an optical camera, explains Qualcomm's director of technology Francis MacDougall.
"One issue the Kinect has is an inability to track close to a device. The default design can track no closer than 50cm - great for TVs but not so good for tablets and smartphones," says Mr MacDougall.
"So Qualcomm has placed multiple audio sensors - microphones - into their handset designs to isolate the voice location in 3D space while filtering out everything else.
"This technique is extremely low power and can track the hand within one to 15cm of the phone."
Imagine that you are driving a car and your child is on the back seat watching a movie on a tablet - you don't have to divert your attention from the road, but just by making a gesture near the tablet you would be able to pause it or turn it off.
And such possibilities are endless, says Mr MacDougall.
For instance, how about answering a phone when you're cooking, eating or driving without touching the screen or even having to look at it? Or turning pages on an eReader with swipe gestures? Or skipping to the next song with a swipe or pausing it with a palm raised?
These touchless features are pretty much what other companies working in the area have been promising to deliver, but one that relates to TV control is quite unique to GestureTek.
"We're working on face recognition that will be used to identify each member of the family and bring up custom interfaces as part of a next generation 'smart TV' interface," says Mr MacDougall.
To achieve that, the firm is turning to optical solutions, similar to those used by XTR3D - the standard forward-facing 2D camera and in some cases a stereo set-up - two standard 2D camera sensors spaced a small distance apart to calculate the 3D location of any features in the scene.
However the companies around the world are doing it - with regular or infrared cameras, or with ultrasound sensors, one thing is certain, says Mr MacDougall.
"Gesture is definitely heating up!"