No touch required: Intel and Apple's visions for 3D gesture devices gathering pace

No touch required: Intel and Apple's visions for 3D gesture devices gathering pace

Summary: Israeli-developed natural interaction technology could start showing up on devices as soon as next year.

TOPICS: Hardware, Apple, Intel
Intel's Mooly Eden shows off a pen-sized 3D camera developed by Intel teams in Israel. Image: Intel

Israeli 3D technology made big news this week with two acquisition stories – one confirmed, one not – that could fundamentally change the way we interact with devices.

Intel confirmed on Tuesday that it is purchasing Israeli 3D gesture technology company Omek, in a bid to beef up its "perceptual computing" development program. According to Intel SVP and Intel Israel president Mooly Eden, laying out the company's vision at a recent event in the country, the advent of the tech is "just around the corner".

In the other potential deal, Apple was rumoured to be in talks with another Israeli 3D gesture tech company — PrimeSense, the company that developed the Kinect for Microsoft. PrimeSense has described the story as "ridiculous", and the reported purchase price bandied about in the media — about $290m — sounds a bit on the low side for a company that has a proven product track record. But the business PrimeSense is in now — 3D sensors for small devices — would nonetheless be a sound addition for the 3D gesture tech that could (most likely) go into future iPhones and iPads.

Perceptual computing

At Intel's recent "mini-Computex" show in Haifa, where Israeli engineers got to see the fruits of their development labor (such as the new Samsung Galaxy tablets which contain Clover Trail+ SoCs, development of which was led in Israel), Eden showed off Intel's latest perceptual computing ideas and almost-products.

3D gesture technology — along with voice tech and "emotion recognition", where a device will recognise your mood and respond appropriately — is a pillar of perceptual computing. Eden said the experience Intel is aiming for is an "immersive" one, in which communicating with a device will be very much like communicating with a human. He said it is also an area where Intel has made a lot of progress recently.

"We have been talking about perceptual computing for three and a half years and working on it for two years," Eden said. "In 2014 we will be introducing our new 3D camera, which will be very thin and small, like a pen. We will be putting it on many vendor devices, and it is going to be very disruptive."

That camera (developed in Israel, Eden said) will enable not just gross movement interaction with devices, à la Microsoft's Xbox Kinect, but enable fine, subtle gestures to be used, both close-up and further away from a device.

The only thing missing is software to interact with the camera, and Intel has been running a contest for developers in that area. But Omek's already been there and done that, producing gesture-based technology for consumer electronics, cars, game devices, digital signage, healthcare, and more.

Omek's two 3D gesture platforms, Grasp and Beckon, respectively let developers equip devices with the ability to understand close-range fine gestures, and longer range gestures.


The platforms, Omek said, allow developers "to create controller-free interfaces that allow users to express themselves naturally and intuitively so the device understands them, instead of the other way around".

It sounds an awful lot like what Intel itself is trying to do, and in fact, Omek is well on its way to its own gesture-only device — in the form of the world's first gesture-based "touchless" computer.

Using its Grasp "as the underlying software to add gesture recognition", Taiwan's Compal Electronics has designed and built a fully integrated gesture-based All-In-One for one of their major customers," said Omek. "The end result features an All-in-One computer with full 3D motion control and gesture recognition based on a 3D camera built directly into the bezel of the screen. No additional peripheral device needed. Hands, though, are required."

Intel wouldn't say exactly what it planned to do with Omek, but it's pretty clear where Omek's tech is going to end up – in the next generation of devices from Samsung, Acer, Dell, and the other vendors who are lining up to put Intel's current Haswell and future Silvermont technologies.

At the Haifa event, Eden said that all the elements for true perceptual computing will be in place in about three or four years, but there's a good chance that the Omek acquisition may speed that up.

Apple, on the other hand, hasn't stumped up as erudite a spokesman as Eden to tell the world of its plans, but a glance at the PrimeSense web site shows how the company's tech would be a match for the iPhone-maker. PrimeSense has over 20 million sensors on the market in a plethora of devices, "enabling natural interaction between people and devices and between devices and their surroundings".

One application of PrimeSense's technology that Apple will likely be interested in is PrimeSense's 3D TV control tech: "Via our partnerships with leading consumer electronics and content brands, PrimeSense is bringing naturally interactive entertainment and remote control-free interfaces to homes everywhere. We're giving new life to home entertainment," goes its pitch.

Sounds like a natural fit for Apple TV. PrimeSense has quite a few products that would be right at home on Apple hardware — but according to company insiders quoted in the media, if Apple is offering less than $300m for PrimeSense, it had better think again. After Waze, one would think that Apple would have learned its lesson on underbidding the market on Israeli startups.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Intel

David Shamah

About David Shamah

David Shamah has been writing about Israeli technology news for over a decade, both in print and on the web, and knows the Israeli tech scene and its start-ups inside out.

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  • Kinect

    So, Kinect.
    Tim Acheson
    • Fail (As usual)

      First, not Kinect. For any number of reasons. For one thing, the Kinect, while a nice device, is COMPLETELY incapably of fine-featured level gesture control.
      Second, just like Google did not invent head mounted retina projection displays, neither did MS invent ANY of the tech showcased in the Kinect. 3D gesture sensors were already a growing industry and hobbyist field long before MS came on the scene.
      Your continual harping on the iPhone and how the Palm Pilot and Nokia were first (conveniently ignoring the Newton) makes your comment not only inaccurate, but hypocritical.
      • According to a report I read right here a few weeks ago, the Kiinect

        people (at Microsoft, of course), were refining the gesture recognition capabilities of the Kinect, to the point where even face gestures and expressions were able to be recognized. If I remember correctly, even fine-featured gestures were being worked on, and being recognized. So, you may be a little late on your knowledge about the Kinect developments.
      • Take a look at recent research with Kinect...

        Microsoft Research turns Kinect into canny sign language reader (video)
      • Here's more...

        Hands-on with prototypes of the Xbox One and new Kinect sensor
      • From the Endgadget article:

        "Presumably thanks to its 250,000 pixel resolution, we saw the IR module tracking joint rotation, facial expressions, individual fingers, open / closed eyes, and even how many calories we were burning as we moved around. Oh, and it can track up to six people at once. "
        • OMG really?!? You really ARRE as daft as I thought

          I state that the Kinect is not capable of fine level feature differentiation and you post links to articles about gross level feature differentiation and fine level feature differentiation with ENTIRELY DIFFERENT HARDWARE, and you somehow think you've made a point? Really?!? OMG.
      • NO, You FAIL!

        blissful ignorance of what MS is doing with Kinect, especially with Xbox One.
        • You as well

          What part of the fact that the XBox One is using new hardware are you refusing to understand?!?
  • Microsoft Tax?

    smells like Kinect, pay MS Tax.
  • Remember

    Back in the 60's (and before) there was plenty of popular fiction with voice computer interfaces (Star Trek, 2001 etc) do we have those yet in wide spread use? Specialist interfaces and highly targetd/limited applications (like phone trees) yes. Widespread, No.

    In there 80's and 90's the fictional interface of choice for the future was Virtual 3D spaces. How's that working out? Specialist interfaces (aircraft training simulators etc), yes. Widespread? No.

    The current hot fictional interface is motion, hand and arm waving (Minority Report, Iron Man, etc.) Can you guess what my opinion of what is likely to happen in the hand and arm waving motion interface space is? You guessed it, specialized interfaces only.
    • txscott is beg to differ on your comment on voice interfaces

      You must not have a current smartphone based on your comment on voice interfaces. I can practically do anything on my galaxy s4 using voice commands. I also just received my Leap Motion device yesterday. Now I can control my Windows 8 desktop with hand motions.
  • Android is ahead of the game on this.

    Samsung phones recognize several gestures commands already without touching the phone. And Google just announced the always on voice feature for the new Moto X phone. Both of these features will show up on future updates of vanilla Android I'm sure.
    • Actually, they're behind MS and it's XBox One with Kiinect.

      Look it up.
  • Touch anybody?

    There has been so much controversy around touch and Microsoft which many have yet to accept that I can just visualize perceptual computing, which is not motion but would seem to encompass facial, thought, gesture and mood recognition and the reception that will receive. MSFT is well on it's way with Xbox One and it's automobile platform but if as so many experts claim MSFT is in disarray and soon to go under we can dismiss their efforts.

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