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

Israeli-developed natural interaction technology could start showing up on devices as soon as next year.
Written by David Shamah, Contributor
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.

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