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The new TV remote: Your bare hand?

At least one major TV manufacturer has been actively looking at how to bring a TV into the mainstream that is controlled by motion sensor.

Motion-control TV
Ceatec attendees try out motion-controlled TV in September 2008. Erica Ogg/CNET

The TV remote control of the future isn't an expensive device with an LCD screen and blinking lights. It's your hand.

The classic TV remote control most of us have grown up with has been around in essentially the same incarnation for half a century. It's been tweaked over the years, but now one company is looking at ditching the remote altogether and using a camera mounted below a TV screen that senses hand motions instead of button pushes. The result is something that seems right out of Minority Report.

But the high-tech user interface Tom Cruise coolly manipulates onscreen isn't even all that far-fetched now, thanks to incremental improvements. Until now, the most innovative new input for entertainment in the living room has been the Wii-mote, the motion-sensing remote control/wand that has made Nintendo's game console a cultural phenomenon. Swing it like a tennis racket and you can pretend you're playing tennis, point it at the screen and use it like a mouse to navigate menus.

Televisions have progressed as well, with better picture quality and capability. Now TVs can record TV shows, stream Netflix movies, check the weather, read news headlines, and skim RSS feeds. The menus on those TVs appear more and more like what we see on our computer screens, so a new interface that operates more like a mouse seems almost inevitable.

"The variety of information and programming on television is certainly stretching the limits of the four-way control pad, so manufacturers are...seeing a lot of complexity start to creep in," noted Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group. As a result, TV manufacturers are trying new things, like putting new software inside remote controls or experimenting with new user interfaces onscreen.

At least one major TV manufacturer has been actively looking at how to bring a remote-less TV into the mainstream. Hitachi approached Silicon Valley-based GestureTek about using its software with a depth camera to track movement and translate it into onscreen commands. It's still just a prototype, but Hitachi demonstrated it at Ceatec last year and at CES in January.

It works like this: The camera is affixed somewhere below the screen, and locks on to one hand of a person standing in front of it, picking up predetermined gestures (waving to the side will navigate left or right, lingering over a certain spot is the equivalent of clicking with a mouse). The software tells the camera to ignore extraneous movements or other people's hands, should they come into the view of the camera--thus fighting over the remote control will take on a whole new meaning.

The camera is a depth camera, which means it senses movement that is horizontal, vertical, toward, and away from it. The gestures can be tuned to page through menus and select letters to search show titles. But the actual capabilities will be determined by each TV manufacturer, who would decide how such an interface would work on their TV.

GestureTek has been around for two decades, and has been making motion-control software for nearly that long. The software has been used in games for cell phones in Japan, as well as add-on devices to game consoles, like the EyeToy for Sony's PlayStation and the Webcam for the Xbox 360.

The company says that gesture-based controls are the ultimate solution for entertainment in the living room--no more hunting for the remote that has once again lodged itself between sofa cushions, or remembering which drawer you put the game controller in.

But besides that, this could be yet another way besides extras like onscreen widgets or Netflix-streaming capability that TV makers can add to bump up the price of some LCD or plasma. Having a motion-sensing TV is a more tangible way to stand out from other brands on the shelf beyond slight improvements in contrast resolution and refresh rates, noted Rubin.

TV makers "need to be conscious of bottom line, but in the time period before we have the next picture-quality breakthrough in OLED, there's a scramble to add things to the television experience that manufacturers have been reluctant to add before," he said. "The industry is looking beyond low-hanging fruit to attract new buyers, particularly at the high end."

The remoteless TV, when it does eventually hit stores, will almost certainly be available only on premium sets.

"The gating factor right now is the cost of the depth cameras," William Leckonby, CEO of GestureTek, said recently in an interview.

Depth cameras cost 10 to 20 times more than a Webcam today, but they can do things Web cams can't, like taking out background movement. But that price difference "won't be an issue" in the next 18 months, Leckonby says. There are a handful of companies working to get the cost of each camera down to about $50 each, which Leckonby hopes will push not only TV manufacturers, but also set-top box and other entertainment device makers to include his technology in their devices.

Leckonby says all the major TV manufacturers are at least thinking about incorporating motion control abilities into their products, and even some PC makers.

Problems can be expected, of course, when a device requires a whole new way of interacting. Though pointing and hand gestures are fairly basic human functions, pantomiming in front of a TV set may be difficult or just undesirable for some consumers. Simplicity will be key. If they can't learn it quickly on the show floor at Best Buy or within the first day the TV is brought home, the technology may never take off widely, as Rubin points out: "A new form of consumer behavior as people sit in front of TV sets is always challenging to create in a relatively short amount of time."