Technology turns camera phones into motion sensors

The company that brought the technology to Sony's EyeToy is now embedding it in mobile handsets.
Written by Marguerite Reardon, Contributor
A company that supplies motion-sensing technology for video games is bringing that technology to cell phones.

Earlier this week, GestureTek announced that NTT DoCoMo in Japan would be embedding the EyeMobile gesture recognition technology into two new FOMA 904i series handsets.

The new DoCoMo phones, which are being released in Japan this month, will initially use the motion-sensing technology for games. Later in the year, the phones will be able to use gesture-sensing for map browsing. Eventually, the technology will also be used for motion-controlled menu scrolling, picture browsing and mobile Internet surfing, company executives said.

Motion-sensing technology has recently come into vogue with the huge success of Nintendo's Wii game console, which enables people to hit tennis volleys like they're Venus Williams. The Wii uses tiny embedded devices called accelerometers that detect motion. Some handset makers, such as Nokia, Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and even newcomer Apple, are using accelerometer technology to provide some kind of motion-sensing capability in a handful of handset models.

This approach requires handset manufactures to design these tiny devices into handsets, adding cost and power consumption to each device. GestureTek's technology takes a different approach. It's completely software-based and uses already embedded cameras in handsets to track movements.

"The software processes one image and compares it to the next to see how objects have moved in relation to each other to determine motion," said Francis MacDougall, founder and chief technology officer of GestureTek. "DoCoMo loved the technology because it didn't require them to redesign the handset. It was just a software upgrade."

The software supports three main types of motion, dubbed shake, rock and roll. Shake can be used for actions such as rolling dice and shuffling MP3 decks. Rock interprets right, left, up and down gestures to generate traditional cursor-style user input commands. Roll offers joystick control by responding to tilting motions used in navigating games, maps or Web pages.

But some experts say GestureTek's motion-sensing technology is less sensitive than using accelerometers and gyroscopes. Those devices track movements three-dimensionally, while GestureTek's EyeMobile software only tracks movements in two dimensions. Still, GestureTek's technology is less expensive and a lot faster to implement than adding components that increase the cost of the device and require new product designs.

"Accelerometers and gyroscopes will likely give more bang for the buck over the long term," said Marlene Bourne, president and principal analyst for Bourne Research. "But GestureTek's technology can get motion-sensing applications to market a lot faster."

GestureTek, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., is over 20 years old. The company got its start developing camera-based motion-sensing technology for museum installations. It then moved on to providing technology for digital signage, retail displays and devices such as the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 2 EyeToy.

The deal with DoCoMo is the first time the company has licensed its technology to be embedded in mobile phones. The company has licensed its software to third-party BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) developers to create games for Verizon Wireless subscribers. But in that case, the software is downloaded as part of the game and is not used for more advanced motion-sensing navigation applications.

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