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The future of motion-sensing technology

Thu, 01/14/2010 - 9:51am
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Science Fiction is more than just popular; it is also incredibly influential, to an extent that is often surprising. Time and again, science fiction makes its presence felt in real-world technology, war, and politics."

- P.W. Singer, “Wired for War"

Among its many virtues, Sci-Fi is very good at predicting real-world technology. From Star Trek, we got the cell-phone, the PalmPilot, and even Cyber Knife. The Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report, predicted two recent favorites—E-Ink and multi-touch. Ever since the latter hit theaters, scientists, researchers, engineers, and technophiles have been clamoring to reproduce the film’s futuristic touch screen technology. It turns out that we've already surpassed it.

At last year’s CES, I received a demo of Sixense’s TrueMotion technology. Unlike the Wiimote, TrueMotion senses movement along 6 axes (hence the name). And whereas the Wiimote’s accelerometer-based technology suffers from line-of-sight restrictions, TrueMotion uses “magnetic motion tracking” to avoid this problem. Then, in June of ’09, Nintendo released Wii MotionPlus, an expansion to the Wiimote which supplements the Wii’s Sensor Bar and purportedly renders actions in real-time. Both of these technologies share one thing in common—controllers. At CES 2010, Microsoft showed off a new demo video of their forthcoming Project Natal. This intriguing peripheral (if they can be called that anymore) turns the body into a controller.Like the Wiimote, Project Natal operates through a sensor bar, placed beneath or above the TV. But that’s where the similarities end. Project Natal combines an RGB camera, a depth sensor (consisting of an infrared projector combined with a monochrome CMOS sensor), and a multi-array microphone to enable full-body 3D motion capture, facial recognition, and voice recognition. No controllers are needed. You don't even need gloves like the Tom Cruise character in Minority Report. The potential applications are limitless. I’m particularly interested in Natal-enabled war games—you duck; your character ducks. You dive behind cover; he does the same. It’d give new meaning to “First Person Shooter.

At CES ‘10, Toshiba showed us a similar demo—their 3D Motion Gesture Control tech. In the demo (seen below), an employee uses directional sweeping motions and other gestures to interface with an on-screen globe. Unlike Project Natal (planned for release in December ’10), there were no evident plans to commercialize Toshiba’s demo. But the capabilities were amazing.

As these demos suggest, the early application areas will be video games, Boxee, and other items connected to the TV. But imagine the possibilities—picture doing office work without a mouse or touching the screen. Imagine controlling every electronic device in your home without touching anything. We may be years away from this level of integration, but the potential is there. Sci-Fi has never been closer to reality.

Join the discussion! Leave a comment below or send your comments to jason.lomberg@advantagemedia.com

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