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Media Coverage

Touchless Tech
Computer Features

Andy Greenberg
Jul 11 2008

In the future of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, Tom Cruise turns on a wall-sized digital display simply by raising his hands, which are covered with black, wireless gloves. Like an orchestra's conductor, he gestures in empty space to pause, play, magnify and pull apart videos with sweeping hand motions and turns of his wrist.

Minority Report takes place in the year 2054. The touchless technology that it demonstrates may arrive many decades sooner. In fact, John Underkoffler, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab who advised the Minority Report filmmakers, has already founded a firm to bring gesture-recognition computing into the real world...


GestureTek, another player in the nascent gesture-recognition market, has been developing motion-sensing interfaces for around 20 years, and builds software systems for integrating gesture-sensing cameras into video game systems including the Playstation Two's EyeToy and Xbox Live Vision. Those cameras integrate players' movements, allowing an onscreen avatar to mimic arm gestures or walking motions.

More recently, GestureTek has been working to bring that touchless tech to the non-gaming world. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company has built demonstrations of interfaces that allow users to control Windows Media Center completely by hand motions. Flashing an open palm to the screen "wakes up" the gesture interface; moving your hand in a circular motion cycles through a menu, as if the user were using a large, invisible iPod clickwheel. All motions can be performed as far as 10 feet from the camera.

In other models, GestureTek uses three-dimensional cameras that bounce infrared light off a user's hands and measure the beam's travel time. That allows the system to gauge distance and register motions toward and away from a computer screen, rather than merely side to side or up and down. In these 3D systems, users can "click" on an onscreen object by merely tapping the air in front of them. Hold a finger forward and move it laterally to drag and drop.

GestureTek co-founder Francis MacDougall says the technology will be integrated by a "major PC manufacturer" in the next three months. "This isn't a gimmick," he says. "If I can get 90% of applications like e-mail or checking stocks or the weather through simple gestures, everything starts to meld into a single display like a digital photo frame. The desktop is cleared off and all the extra pieces are eliminated."

As gesture-recognition technologies come to fruition, other touchless interface technologies are quickly taking their place in the realm of "too futuristic to be possible." One of the most eagerly anticipated is--yes, this is nonfiction--headsets that allow computers to be controlled with thought alone.

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GestureTek technologies have international patent protection. U.S. patents include: 5,534,917 (Video Gesture Control Motion Detection);
7,058,204 (Multiple Camera Control System, Point to Control Base Patent); 7,421,093 (Multiple Camera Tracking System for Interfacing With an Application);
7,227,526 (Stereo Camera Control, 3D-Vision Image Control System); 7,379,563 (Two Handed Movement Tracker Tracking Bi-Manual Movements);
7,379,566 (Optical Flow-Based Tilt Sensor For Phone Tilt Control); 7,389,591 (Phone Tilt for Typing & Menus/Orientation-Sensitive Signal Output);
7,430,312 (Five Camera 3D Face Capture).

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