Gesture-Recognition Technology: Not So Far Out

January 13, 2010

So far out, even my wife didn’t like the idea of this.

Picture me sitting in front of the TV, flipping channels by waving my hand in the air. No remote, no controller, no anything.

As strange as it sounds, this technology is actually being developed and marketed by Microsoft and Hitachi.  An article in yesterday’s New York Times reports these electronics and software companies are about to sell devices that enable customers to control a TV or a computer with hand gestures. This brings to mind this scene from Tom Cruise’s movie Minority Report.

Considering that no one likes to lose TV remote controllers, and they are complicated to use, gesture-recognition technology makes sense (as odd as it still feels to me).  Who wants to search the living room for a lost TV remote, only to find it under the couch?  Given all this and other reasons, it would not be surprising to see this technology become widely accepted in a few short years, and for remote controls to eventually disappear from the TV and computer landscape.  With the profusion of set-top boxes and associated remote-control devices polluting the typical home entertainment center in the living room, eliminating as many physical devices as possible, and incorporating their functions into a television or computer, would do a lot toward cleaning up the living room.

One of the fascinating things about new technologies is that they have uses that the original creators never anticipated.  In this case, gesture-recognition technology will have great applicability for people with disabilities.  If the technology could be developed for televisions and computers to recognize simple hand gestures, then it can be retooled for people with disabilities who have difficulty controlling their motor functions. Picture a TV watcher with cerebral palsy, who has difficulty guiding his hand in a certain direction that he/she wants, much less controlling a physical TV remote. Gesture-recognition software could be personalized to a person’s preferences, so that a certain gesture that the person is comfortable with could be used to change channels, increase the volume, or carry out a task on a computer. This would eliminate the need for physical products that some people with disabilities rely on to control their television, computer, or other devices.

There are already physical devices, such as this gesture-recognition glove, that are in the market or are being rolled out soon. A couple problems with them: (1) they can and will get lost, and (2) some disabled people, if given the choice, would rather have features completely incorporated into the TV or computer, rather than as a separate device that they have to handle, considering some of them have difficulty picking up physical objects.

Like closed captioning, which branched out to sports bars and immigrants learning English as a second language, gesture-recognition technology will branch out beyond the TV and computer market into the large, diverse market of people with disabilities, if not other markets.  Which, considering the diversity of the disabled population and the baby-boom population approaching retirement age, could result in better-than-expected profit streams for the manufacturers of gesture-recognition products.  By reinvesting these profits into further development of better and more efficient products, this can only benefit customers with disabilities.

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