Consumer Electronics Show: Gesture recognition heats up

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Numerous manufacturers at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show have demonstrated new approaches to the remote control that break out of the the left-right-up-down straitjacket. The most radical are technologies that have no remote at all -- instead they respond to a user’s movements in front of the screen.

Competing examples on display were from PrimeSense, the Israeli designers of the microchips that power Microsoft’s popular controller-free Kinect gaming accessory, and Softkinetic, a Belgian rival that powered an interactive billboard in Hollywood last summer for ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.’ The former relies on an approach called structured light -- a projector fills the area in front of the display with beams of infrared light, then a sensor detects how the beams are distorted by moving objects. The latter takes the so-called time of flight approach, which detects motion by projecting light in front of a display and measuring how long it takes to bounce back.


PrimeSense has a considerable head start in the gesture recognition field thanks to the inclusion of its technology in Kinect -- Microsoft sold some 8 million units of the device in 60 days. But games are ‘just the tip of the iceberg,’ said Uzi Breier, executive vice president of PrimeSense. ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution. We’re changing the interface between man and machine.’

PrimeSense is focused on living room devices, while SoftKinect is also active in display advertising and medical applications. Breier said other possible uses include automobile security and safety, robotics, home security and rehabilitation.

For video games, PrimeSense’s technology allows players to inhabit the virtual bodies of characters on screen. The sensors don’t track motion perfectly, but they do well enough to make for a fully immersive experience. For home entertainment generally, Breier said, the company is trying to help consumers make the transition from TV channel surfing -- an activity well served by the up/down buttons on a conventional remote -- to video on demand, sorting through collections of programs to find the ones they want to watch.

The user interfaces that PrimeSense and Softkinect developed for TV services work pretty much the same way. Users raise a hand to place a circular cursor on the screen, then hold it on a spot to select an item. They can pull down menus or scroll through items in a similar fashion. The systems don’t seem as responsive as the buttons on a remote, but they provide a more versatile and attractive interface.

Hyunsuk Kim, a senior vice president on Samsung’s visual display research and development team, agreed that the way consumers interact with TVs has to change, given the complexity of the sets and the amount of content. Samsung has touch-screen remotes and is exploring voice and motion detection. But he’s not convinced that consumers lying on the couch are going to want to sit up and wave their hands in order to change the channel.

‘That’s for fun,’ Kim said of motion-based controls. ‘Watching TV is a totally different experience.’

All the same, Breier said he expected his company’s gesture-recognition technology to be built directly into displays. ‘It will go into the bezel of the TV or the all-in-one PC. Absolutely. There are people working on it as we speak,’ he said. The company’s only formal product announcement at the show, though, was the integration into a media-center computer by PC maker Asus.

PrimeSense is counting on software developers to build on the capabilities of its chips. Softkinect, on the other hand, started out developing a software platform and applications that could work with any manufacturer’s 3-D sensors, then they bought chip designer Optrima to develop its own time-of-flight processors.

The advantage to the time-of-flight approach, said Softkinetic chief strategy officer Eric Krzeslo, is that it can be accomplished with less powerful chips that are less expensive and consume less power. It’s also capable of operating at a much higher frame rate -- up to 100 frames per second -- for more precise motion tracking.

Softkinetic expects games to be a driving force for gesture technology, but TV set-top box makers are interested too, said Virgile Delporte, vice president of sales and marketing. The company’s next major deployment will be in Asia in the first quarter this year, followed by Europe and the U.S., he said.


A million Kinects sold in 10 days, Microsoft says

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.