Gesture Technology Is Making its Move
On April Fool's Day of this year, Google released the latest incarnation of its popular email service, Gmail Motion . The service would make Gmail actions based on gestures by the user, rather than the mouse and keyboard. Want to reply to an email? Point your thumb backwards over your shoulder. Reply All? Both thumbs back. Of course, it was a joke.
The advent of 3D systems that allow for humans to make gestures that computers understand, however, are no joke. The breakthrough, known as gestural interfaces , was named a top 10 emerging technology of 2011 by MIT Technology Review and is best known in the form of the video game Microsoft Kinect for Xbox. Experts, and Microsoft, believe that video games are just the first application.
"Having this kind of input device together with the power and clout of Microsoft's size and might is very important and transformative," said Ken Perlin, professor of computer science at the New York University Media Research Lab.
The technology, pioneered by Alexander Shpunt at PrimeSense, allows the computer to see the world in three dimensions by sensing depth of the object, in this case the human, so it can separate a person's movement from other objects in the background. The sensor bounces light or sound off of the surfaces it scans to read movement and combine that with looking at the scene from different viewpoints to get a more accurate picture.
The computing world is already looking toward other various applications, like making the TV remote obsolete by allowing the TV to be operated by someone just pointing and making gestures from the couch. Perlin also said that many researchers not just Microsoft were looking at taking the technology to the next level, such as trying to have the sensors understand force.
But in the hands of Microsoft, there will definitely be business applications. Perlin said that Microsoft's recent purchase of the video conferencing company Skype is a prime example of marrying two technologies. He imagines a tele-immersion scenario, where you could have the other person virtually in front of you, and maybe even move business documents between both of you.
Humans, of course, have countless gestures and movements , and so to start with there will likely be limited gestures that computers respond to. Like other technology, Perlin expects that these gestures will become second nature to young children who grow up with the technology. Because of the learning curve, the Kinect Xbox could be more than just a game for older folks looking to keep up with the times.
"Leisure games are important when you have a fundamentally richer interface because they're providing a tutorial," Perlin told InnovationNewsDaily.
The future could have an entire generation of human-computer interfaces that, unlike the iPad or Wii, "aren't exploiting only a small subset of human movement and expressions," Perlin said. But don't throw out your PC just yet, he warns. "The fact that you have a Kinect doesn't mean you should drop your QWERTY keyboard."
This story is part of a series covering MIT Technology Review's Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2011 list. You can read the previous parts of the series here.