The modern age of electronics is turning everyone into royalty. We have court jesters (TV), scholars (computers), and scribes (office software) at our command. Soon, these servants will even be watching our slightest gestures and voice commands to heed our will. Hitachi announced its TV with gesture controls more than a year ago. Both it and Toshiba were touting “TVs without remotes” at CES 2010. Microsoft announced the XBox 360’s Project Natal, a system that uses the gamer body as a controller, at E3 last year. All of these technologies are scheduled to arrive at market by the end of 2010. Though the specifics differ among devices, each of these technologies would allow a user to simply gesture (sometimes speak) commands to their electronics. Change volume, browse through movies, or drive an arcade race car…all you need is your hands. The end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 will see the first real attempt to get consumers to throw down their remotes and throw up their hands in jubilation. Will we want it? Check out some of the videos below to see what you’re buying.
Hitachi, Toshiba, and Microsoft are just the front runners on this trend. You could include Nintendo in that list as their Wii gaming system uses hand motions (through remotes) as a key ingredient in many games. And gesture technology itself is part of an even larger trend – the changing nature of the computer-human interface. Remotes, keyboards, mice, or game pads, most electronics translate button pushes into commands. The new paradigm for control will be one where our natural movements are harnessed to form a more intuitive way of expressing our desires to our devices. Wave your hand dismissively to change a channel, shake your phone to end a call, or play with blocks that represent files you want to move around. Eventually we’ll remove the physical interfaces altogether. Give projects like Braingate enough time and we could be commanding computers just with out thoughts.
Hitachi worked with Canesta and GestureTek to create its gesture interface. Toshiba has a remarkably similar system for its Cell TV. Both were on display at CES. The demonstration below, however, shows how these gestures are a first generation idea. They still require users to learn a new “language” of motions, albeit a simple one. (Note: the TV screen is blurry because its a new 3D model)
Microsoft’s Project Natal for the XBox 360 is a full body capture device. MS has announced it will be available by the end of 2010 (probably right in time for the holiday season) and will retail for less than $100. It also integrates voice commands. For video game applications, Natal seems better at translating user motion into actions on screen. Still, I would characterize it as imprecise.
In some ways, Project Natal is already pushing into the mainstream. Jimmy Fallon had a demo of the game system on his late night talk show way back in the summer of 2009. Notice the difficulty that he has with some of the controls.
It’s important to note that while big name companies have their brands at stake for these new devices, others have done much of the heavy lifting to develop the gesture recognition technology. PrimeSense and Canesta are responsible for most of the stereo cameras used for TV gesture recognition. GestureTek has created the software to translate perceived movements into commands. If gesture remote controls sell well for Hitachi and Toshiba, we’re likely to see them included in many other products thanks to these third party developers.
For those of us who grew up with remotes or video game controllers in our hands, there is something wonderful about interacting without them. I own a Wii and really enjoy waving the controller around rather than pushing buttons on it. I’ve had friends enjoy playing virtual tennis so much that they developed tennis elbow. At CES this year I even got to wave my hand at a TV with a gesture interface. It was fun. But in none of these situations do I feel I have the precise control I enjoy with my keyboard. Or with my TV remote. For someone who gets frustrated when it takes more than one push to “mute” my TV, I am worried by the loose and sometimes delayed reaction of gesture controls.
Gesture recognition may be a worthy step towards better human computer interaction, but if enough consumers share my worries it will change to just a fad. The overall trend towards intuitive controls, however, is something you can count on. The growing popularity of touch screens and accelerometers in smart phones is just one sign that consumers want a more natural way to command their personal electronics. We want our digital servants to not only know what we are thinking, we want them to be obedient to the exact details of our order. One day, devices will directly translate our thoughts into commands. Until then, we’re likely to see many efforts to create an intuitive and friendly set of controls for the technology around us. The end of 2010 will see gesture recognition’s attempt. Good luck to Microsoft, Hitachi, Toshiba, PrimeSense, Canesta, GestureTek and all the others. You’re going to need it.
[screen capture and video credits: Televisions.com, Microsoft, NBC, CBS Interactive, Prime Sense]