Wave at your new computer. Technology from PointGrab might soon be there to watch you. The Israeli company, which builds gesture-recognition technology, says it's in talks with many vendors bringing out Windows 8 laptops this year.
Currently, PointGrab technology is deeply embedded in a few TV sets from one manufacturer. PointGrab executives begged me not to name the vendor, but there's only one company shipping gesture-controlled TVs so it's not hard to figure it out.
In the living room environment, the technology makes a lot of sense. Instead of having to poke at buttons to control your entertainment, you can, instead, wave one way to change channels, or draw a circle to adjust volume, and so on. The tech is good enough to tell people apart, so if one person is controlling the set and another starts to wave his hands around, that shouldn't mess up the first person's control.
PointGrab is inexpensive technology, both in terms of hardware requirements and CPU overhead. VP Assaf Gad told me that the product works with a standard camera, and the software uses less than 1 percent of the power of an i3; it will also run on an ARM 9. The tool doesn't have the full 3D magic of the, but neither does it rely on a 3D capture setup like a Kinect rig. It works with nearly everything.
But how well? That's the big question. The Metro interface to Windows 8 is, in fact, based on gestures as much as on pointing and clicking. That means that systems like PointGrab's can slot right in, and for the user it can seem more natural to wave and gesticulate to control the system than it might seem on a pure point-and-click UI like the Windows 7 (and Windows 8) desktop interface.
Gad gives a compelling demo of PointGrab controlling Windows 8 on a laptop. I tried it, too. It is simple to use, and intuitive, and it is kind of fun. But of course, my first question about this is, "Don't your arms get tired?" Followed quickly by, "Why do we need this?"
To the first question, the answer is yes, as I can attest. Even during his demos, Gad occasionally had to drop his arms and shake them to keep going. Over time, he says, the system will get better at recognizing smaller gestures. But one problem is that laptop cameras are pointed out from the screen at the user's face, so if you're typing and want to use a gesture, you do have to lift your hand.
He says, though, that gesture control will be good for operating computers from a distance, for presentations for example, or for performing quick actions that are still somewhat fiddly on Windows 8, like getting to the Charms menu.
I could certainly see using gestures to control media viewing or listening. For videos, photos, and music, it makes sense. For productivity work, perhaps not so much. Also, on a tablet, which you're already interacting with by touching, wave gestures might be superfluous.
But as a free feature that might just come with your next Windows 8 laptop or desktop, why not? There will likely be times when stepping back from your machine and being able to control it with just a wave or a point will be just what you want.