PointGrab: The start-up bringing gesture recognition to Windows 8 devices

Israeli gesture recognition tech start-up PointGrab is doubling its staff as it prepares to ship its OEM software primed for Windows 8

If you've used a device that supports gesture recognition, chances are you've used technology by Israeli start-up PointGrab: according to the company's CEO Yoav Hoshen, the company has about 90% of the 2D gesture recognition software market and its software is found in devices from companies like Lenovo, Fujitsu, Acer, Toshiba, Asus, Haier, and others.

The company is now undergoing a rapid expansion of its workforce: last week, PointGrab announced that it was set to increase its staff levels by 50 percent. Currently, about 40 people work in the company's R&D facility in Hod Hasharon, outside Tel Aviv.

The expansion comes as PointGrab gears up for the launch of Windows 8 : it's recently released a version of its OEM-only software with new support for the gestures used in the upcoming OS.

The Gold Master version of the updated software will begin shipping soon, with hardware manufacturers set to install it on their devices in the coming weeks. When the latest Microsoft OS officially launches in late October,  there will be ultrabooks and PCs that are Windows 8 – and PointGrab – ready when they hit the shelves.

The gesture recognition tech allows individuals to bypass other input methods, such as keyboard, mouse, or buttons in favour of using hand movements to control a PC. PointGrab's software will allow users to interact with Metro-style apps using the standard input methods that can be used on the supported device. The gestures users would typically make on a touchscreen to control Windows 8 are 'ported' off-device. The predefined hand gestures are then picked up by the device's webcam and fed into the application.

The hands-free gestures read by PointGrab do their best to duplicate the standard gestures used with a keyboard, touchscreen, or mouse: waving hands left to right to shuffle between songs on music applications or tabs on IE 10, moving a finger in the air to move a cursor, thrusting a finger forward to click, or grabbing (closing the hand) to close a window or file. PointGrab's algorithms read the movement and define it for the application.

The algorithms also identify the positioning of the X, Y coordinates of the hand in order to support accurate cursor control, so the cursor doesn't get lost on the screen, said Hoshen. The algorithms can compensate to some extent within a range of a specific gesture, so it works for users who are less aggressive in waving their hands or grabbing as it does for more enthusiastic gesturers.

There's no hook into Windows itself; all the work is done by the PointGrab software, which can either be installed as an OEM feature using PointGrab's SDK, or built into a chipset, depending on the manufacturer's preference.

The PointGrab system takes the input from the device's webcam, runs it through the software, and spits out a standard gesture, which is then applied to the application being used; as far as the application, or Windows itself knows, the user just clicked on a mouse or pinched a touchscreen.

PointGrab works best within 5m of the webcam or device reading the gestures, and, the company says, it works with even the stock (read: inexpensive) manufacturer-supplied webcams that come built into devices, as well as with the inexpensive (read: cheap) off-the-shelf ones. The technology works even in poorly lit rooms and backgrounds, according to PointGrab.

Although established only in 2008, PointGrab has captured swathes of the gesture business, to the extent that it is the biggest player the two-dimensional hands-free gesture software-based recognition business -– a business that Israeli companies dominate.

Israeli gesture technology is best known, of course, as the brains behind Microsoft's Kinect, whose 3D gesture control technology is based on technology developed by Israel's PrimeSense.