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Forget touchscreens, try point-and-wave

22 апреля 2009

With touchscreens gaining mainstream acceptance, computer designers have their fingers on - or, more specifically, off - the next new technology.

Computer and smartphone makers are scrambling to make touchscreen devices part of their product lines, but others are primed to make another leap: using cameras and sophisticated software so televisions and other devices can react to a hand wave or finger wag. The technology, often called "virtual touch" or "natural input," is designed to make interacting with tech products more intuitive.

And many see the technology hitting the consumer market soon.

"It would be really convenient if you could just snap your fingers and your program would come up," said Roger Kay of researcher Endpoint Technologies."There are various reasons why people would benefit from an enhanced input method."

The push toward simplifying communication between man and machine has been gaining momentum recently with the popularity of products such as Apple Inc.'s iPhone, which lets users control Web pages and sort through applications with a flick of the finger. Meanwhile, Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s Wii console forced gamers out of armchairs to golf or swing a racket with its remote.

The new virtual-touch technologies take things one step further, allowing people to control devices without touching a screen or holding a remote.

While many still associate these types of computer controls with science fiction, analysts and developers said products are in development and should be in the market as early as next year.

"What's new here is that you can do it on a consumer-based device and you can do it well," said Michael Steele, head of graphics-chip maker Nvidia Corp.'s visual-computing business."It's not really 'Star Trek' anymore. It's all really happening right now."

Techniques vary, but generally speaking, TVs or computers are fitted with camera systems that can distinguish distance. Software then translates the real-time movements into commands and can use it to have a character throw a football, swing a golf club, or direct a cursor to select icons and move graphics around the screen.

Many small, private companies are developing the software that takes all the visual information generated by cameras and translates it into a program human movements can control. Several have formed relationships with larger companies, such as TV maker Hitachi Ltd., Nvidia and game designer Electronic Arts Inc. to produce prototypes and product demonstrations.

Hardware and software partners are mum on which companies have products in development, but the usual suspects, videogame developers and TV makers, have taken the most public steps so far.

At January's Consumer Electronics Show, Hitachi, working with GestureTek Inc., presented a prototype television that can be operated by waving or pointing. France Telecom subsidiary Orange Vallee developed a similar TV program working with Softkinetic. Sprint Nextel Corp. has used the technology to create an interactive advertisement where users can toss footballs to pro receivers. EA Sports created a prototype version of Tiger Woods golf.

The costs associated with 3-D cameras have held back gesture-based products for the mass market. Many cameras employ a sonarlike system that measures distance and movements through rapid flickers of light. They can cost exponentially more than the webcams sold to consumers today.

But the other major hardware hurdle, acquiring the processing power to break down the video images and interpret the massive amounts of data they contain, is now being done quickly and cheaply by using graphics cards developed by companies like Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

These processors have hundreds of tiny computing engines that can simultaneously work with massive amounts of data, which makes reading hand and body gestures possible, said Terek El Dokor, computer-engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who develops ways for machines to "see" and interact with human movements.

El Dokor's software enables applications that can work with a set of standard webcams, dramatically lowering the costs. Others said 3-D cameras are set to drop in price as well, now that the other pieces are in place.

The next step is simplifying the gestures and techniques used to control the devices so that, much like the Wii, anyone can walk up and make everything work.

"The technology is in place," said Thomas Peterson, Softkinetic marketing chief."Within not such a long time frame, it will turn out to be a much more mass-market product."


Источник: Total Telecom

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