Hillcrest Labs finds a future in motion

With sensor-driven applications on the rise, Hillcrest Labs looks beyond smart TVs to mobile devices and wearable computers.
Written by Mari Silbey, Contributor on

"There are smart people east of the Mississippi."

This is Dan Simpkins' response when asked why his company Hillcrest Labs is headquartered in suburban Rockville, Maryland. It's not the obvious choice for an innovative tech company, but it seems to suit Hillcrest's executives. They are smart, down-to-earth engineering types who look more at home in a nondescript office park outside Washington, D.C., than they would in the less conservative climes of Silicon Valley.

For all its conventional facade, Hillcrest is working in a revolutionary field. After its early start as a television software business, the company is now concentrating on motion-sensing technology and its application in human/computer interfaces.

The evolutionary journey began in 2001. "We really, literally invented the smart TV," says Simpkins, founder and CEO of Hillcrest.

He is referring to the Home Multimedia Environment (HoME) operating system, which Hillcrest developed between 2003 and 2006. Internet video was still in its infancy -- YouTube didn't launch until 2005 -- and many people didn't have broadband connections. Still, Simpkins saw potential for an operating system that combined regular television with Web apps, music, photos and more.

Perhaps more importantly, Simpkins saw how smart TVs could change the functional requirements for a TV interface. With more content to search and manage, Simpkins understood that people would need a more efficient way to interact with their screens.

So, in parallel with ongoing TV software development, Hillcrest engineered a new kind of television remote. Smooth and shaped like a ring, Hillcrest's Loop started making public appearances in 2006. The odd form factor was visually arresting, but it was the underlying technology (which Hillcrest has branded Freespace) that really made the Loop stand out.

Instead of buttons, the Loop relied on point-and-click interaction. Point the controller at the TV screen, and you could select items directly; no fumbling for a particular menu option or scrolling tediously through channels with up and down buttons.

"What we recognized," says Simpkins, "was that motion was the right way to control television... It's kind of fundamental."

The Loop was a breakthrough for Hillcrest, and marked a shift in direction for the business. Even as the economy went on to collapse in 2008, and Hillcrest's traction with the HoME operating system stalled out, the company found a way forward with motion sensing. Several big names now license Hillcrest's MotionEngine software including LG, Roku and Logitech.

Hillcrest has also ventured into the mobile space. Although most of its business is still in the TV industry, the company markets a low-power micro-controller that handles sensor management for mobile devices. Hillcrest's MotionEngine Mobile software controls a smartphone's or tablet's accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. These sensors are enabling a raft of new applications including new types of games, new ways to navigate through photos and music, and new interfaces for exploring panoramic imagery.

Looking farther into the future, mobile devices are a gateway to wearable computing applications for Hillcrest. The company is working with Kopin Corporation on its Golden-i platform, which is the basis for a new product line of Google-Glass-like headset computers.

Simpkins describes his company's mission today as centering on "low-cost, high-performance motion products." That's not a bad business to be in. Given advances in mobile computing, augmented and virtual reality, and sensor-driven information analysis, there is significant demand building for Hillcrest's brand of technology.

Simpkins may not know where this is all headed, but Hillcrest is certainly generating momentum in this business of motion.

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