Xsens mainstreams motion-capture technology

From gaming applications to fitness accessories, the potential consumer applications for motion-capture technology are quite literally limitless.
Written by Mari Silbey, Contributor

Robots aren't born with a sense of balance. But as motion-capture technology improves, it gets easier to teach machines to behave as if they possess a human's inner ear.

Big cargo ships aren't naturally fuel-efficient. Yet with motion-sensing parachutes attached, they can leverage wind energy to propel themselves more easily through water.

Superhero movies aren't meant to be realistic. And yet, god-like figures and supernatural creatures can become convincingly lifelike when modeled on the movements of real people.

Xsens, a company hailing from the Netherlands, has pushed the frontiers of motion-capture technology for more than a dozen years. Its motion-tracking systems have starred in blockbuster Hollywood movies, been deployed by marine and aerospace companies, and been used for medical and robotic applications relying on the study of human movement.

Now, Xsens wants to bring its technology to an even more mainstream audience. The company is licensing its motion-sensor software with the hope that developers will use it for consumer applications for smartphones, tablets and sensor-enabled accessories. For its consumer market debut, Xsens will demonstrate its technology at the 2013 International CES show in Las Vegas next week (Jan. 8-11).

Says Xsens chief technology officer and co-founder, Per Slycke:

"Imagine ... some big handset company, maybe they want to launch a specific smartphone which is geared towards people who do extreme sports. ... They can sell the smartphone together with a few sensors that hook up seamlessly with the smartphone, and in that way basically create a unique offering to a particular user group."

The potential applications for three-dimensional motion capture are quite literally limitless.

At the 2013 CES, Xsens will show a person wearing three-dimensional (3D) body motion sensors like the one pictured, using a computer display to show what those sensors are tracking in real time. Xsens has also created a video demonstration of how sensors could be used to classify and digitize the complex movements of a person on a skateboard (such as in the photo above).

But how third-party developers decide to apply the technology is entirely up to them.

Consumer Appetite for Motion Sensors

The motion-sensing market shifted dramatically when Apple released the iPhone 4 with gyroscopic sensor.

Until that time, motion sensors were used primarily for industrial and scientific purposes. The iPhone 4, however, introduced motion-sensing technology to a much wider audience. Now, with tracking sensors embedded in handheld devices carried by millions of consumers, there is new opportunity to build applications for use on a massive scale.

Gaming may be the first industry to commercialize mobile motion-sensing applications.

As Slycke points out, many game developers are switching their focus from dedicated console players to mobile devices. There's no reason that Microsoft's body-controlled Kinect interface, for example, couldn't be re-fashioned for bodies on the go.

Fitness applications are another low-hanging market opportunity, particularly with the attention they're already getting from big-name brands such as Nike with its FuelBand workout accessory.

In the longer term, motion-tracking applications will also be a source of valuable data - to the scientific community and to the corporate world. Imagine, for example, what a significant collection of data on human movement could tell analysts about individual and crowd behavior.

Again, Slycke notes:

"For consumers, your smartphone is tracking your motion already. People consent to that already. I can definitely imagine you could build up a hugely valuable database of human body motion and use it for all kinds of purposes, but I think it's a sensitive area."

There's a definite creepy side to motion-sensing technology, with futuristic visions of lifelike robotic companions, and smart dust that tracks and even guides human movement.

But for now, the commercial field is still in its relative infancy. Xsens is throwing open the doors to see what creative minds will make of the technology, and how consumers will respond to it as part of everyday life.

(Images courtesy of Xsens)

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