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You the Interface
3-D Gesture Technology Takes Off

by Joe Shepter

In between these, the adventurous art director can choose from an array of moderately-priced systems. Some, like the popular ones from GestureTek, work more or less out of the box. But most consist of middleware, products that don’t do anything themselves, but instead deliver data that designers and software developers must reinterpret to use.

Kinect is one example. It offers a platform that game developers can use to create experiences based on speech and gesture. Big rivals of it in the consumer space are likely to be Softkinetic and Optrima, two companies that offer an inexpensive “time of flight” technology that determines a person’s position by measuring the speed at which photons bounce off him or her. The companies plan to place it in Internet connected TVs, making them, in effect, gaming platforms.

OK, so there’s going to be a lot of this stuff, but will it see widespread use?

The answer in some areas is already yes. Gamers love the technology. “If you’re engaged in a game, something playful, or a virtual world, moving physically through can be a thrilling experience that can make a huge difference,” says Tom Hennes, principal of Thinc Design.

On the more public side, museums and educational institutions have quickly latched onto 3-D gestures. Physical movement has been shown to enhance memory, which has created a lot of commissions for interactive learning systems–though the interfaces tend to be very simple. Also popular are 3-D interactive display ads. Last year saw a number of projects in this area, including one from Disney that promoted The Sorcerer’s Apprentice movie with a game that had users throwing fireballs around a castle.

“One of the main applications so far has been interactive marketing,” says Michel Tombroff, CEO of Softkinetic, whose software helped power the Disney display. “You let people play with the system for a few minutes, and it transforms passive interaction into active. Advertisers like a captive audience for a few seconds, and once you play something like that you never forget the brand. And you get a crowd.”

Still, there is cause for skepticism. Success in games, museums and display advertising can be deceiving—and even a red flag. Those environments tend to produce interface concepts that don't translate well to the consumer market. Gamers have long adored 3-D worlds, but online shoppers have never agreed. You could say the same for interactive tables (a staple at museums), back-projected glass touchscreens (once popular at tradeshows) and RFID (which was going to revolutionize the shopping experience, but didn't).

Even among those who have successfully deployed the technology, caution abounds. “I may eat my words, but I think the file structure in your computer has stabilized to the point where you can find things quickly,” says Hennes. “Adding a 3-D interface to that, unless you have massive data to sort through, is more of a distraction.”

A second factor may be more mundane but critical: comfort. Those who envision people waving their hands in front of themselves to navigate their TV, PC, or refrigerator interfaces are likely mistaken. It’s long been known, since the age of the telegraph in fact, that human arms don’t like to be held up for any length of time making small, precise movements. The result is a painful condition known as “gorilla arm,” which destroyed a promising touch technology in the 1970s.

Still, many of the products coming out seem well aware of the problem, and the sheer volume of efforts is an encouraging sign for the technology. Some may fall squarely into the gorilla arm trap, but 3-D gestural interfaces are going to have a trial run on just about everything. You never know what will stick and turn out to be useful.

Small, for one, has been through his share of interface innovations and treats it all with a bit of sang-froid. “There are some things that gestures are great for,” he says. “Other things work really well with a button.”

In other words, 3-D gesture interfaces may not be the future, but they’ll be a noticeable part of it. Especially over the next few years. CA Shepter
Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.