E3 – the video game industry’s annual confab – is over. And while Sony and Microsoft debuted their new hands-free gaming systems, "Move" and "Kinect," hoping to win bragging rights before they go on sale in the fall, the real message for the rest of us is that the age of gesture control is officially
And that age has arrived not just for the gaming enthusiast eager to control entire virtual worlds with a real-life kick or punch, but for, well, everyone, say analysts, industry professionals and researchers. Whether it’s an emergency body sensor that sends paramedics to a security guard who collapses on duty, a bridge repairman who guides tools through a complicated fix without ever touching them, or a movie fan who stops at a digital movie poster to “throw” digital fireballs at the film’s star while he waits for a bus, it’s hands-off time all over.
With even some of the most powerful, sophisticated, and expensive technology on the planet, buttons and wires are fast becoming passe. Forget the remote,
the controller or even the simple on-off button. Dance lessons may help more. It’s all about the wave of a hand, the crook of a finger, or the jaunty kick of a leg.
“The demand for this technology is just blossoming into the mainstream,” says Wayne Meyer, MEMS Marketing and Applications Manager for Analog Devices, Inc., a manufacturer of the tiny chips that run everything from farm equipment to iPhones. The type of products doesn't seem to matter, he says, adding, “everyone wants to be able to say they have this application somewhere in their system.”
Motion-sensing technology has been around in tailored applications such as airbags for decades. But the recent success of gesture-run software in gaming systems such as the Nintendo Wii and the now-familiar “pinch and spread” smart phone navigation feature has propelled it into the mainstream, says researcher Mark Bolas of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, where his work is funded by the Department of Defense. Microsoft funds his work as an associate professor in the Interactive Media Division of the University's Cinema School.
The adoption pattern is similar to that of many other new technologies, he says.
“We are in the early phases of a new technology,” he says. Most of the new gesture-driven games on display at this past week’s E3 simply replace the actions once taken by analog buttons with arm waves and leg jabs. This is typical, he says.
What the video game industry lends to the evolutionary curve is economies of scale, points out Steve Birnhak, CEO of the firm Inwindow Outdoor, which creates gesture-controlled outdoor displays not unlike the famous “hands-free” scene in the Tom Cruise film “Minority Report.” Passers-by can direct elements in the display without touching any part of it. The company founder says his systems use essentially the same camera at the heart of the new Microsoft Kinect setup, but his low-volume creations can cost thousands apiece. The software giant will buy in massive quantities that will drive prices down and encourage new uses for the technology.
At the same time, gaming enthusiasts are prodding Microsoft and Sony to refine their own applications. Lag time is critical when you are, say, hoping to shoot or bomb the bad guy, points out social media entrepreneur Alex Huf. Traditional game controllers had driven that critical gap between pressing a button and realizing an impact onscreen to a nearly imperceptible level. With the new gesture-recognition technology, he adds, the companies are struggling with as much as a quarter second gap.
“That’s really not acceptable,” says Mr. Huf, adding that the pressure from a $35 billion industry to get that right will inevitably lead to an innovation curve that trickles down to other applications. “If you’re spending as much as $60 million to launch a single game, you will do what it takes to get that right,” he adds.
The next phase, in which a critical mass of investment and sheer “ubiquitousness,” will help push the innovation pace, “gets interesting,” says Mr. Bolas, "when the artists come in and begin to dream up things that we never thought of doing before.”
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