New game controller: Your hands

Israeli start-up 3DV aims to be a contender with motion-sensing tech that has a good handle on depth perception. Photos: 3DV's depth-sensing camera Video: ZCam aims to free gamers

Imagine playing a flight simulation video game that lets you guide the aircraft with your hands alone. Or think about sparring with a virtual boxing opponent by doing nothing but standing up and throwing punches in the air.

If an Israeli company called 3DV Systems has its way, you won't have to just imagine it, or many other examples of games that users could control entirely with their hands, for much longer. That's because its new ZCam, a 3D camera that plugs directly into a PC, is designed to let gamers' hands be the only controllers they need.

In light of the tremendous success of Nintendo's motion-sensitive Wiimote controller for its Wii video game console, 3DV is banking on making a lot of money with technology it thinks can move the genre forward even further.

The ZCam works by emitting short infrared pulses and then measuring the reflections off objects. Sophisticated software algorithms interpret those reflections in such a way that the system can judge the distance of--and distinguish between--various objects and, say, discern someone's hands.

Because it relies strictly on the reflection of the light from the camera, it doesn't need ambient light to work, allowing ZCam to function in a dark room, or with any kind of background, bright, dark or otherwise.

Tomer Barel, 3DV's vice president of marketing and product management, says that means the software can key in on a gamer's hands, and even between his or her fingers, and can run various applications based on what that person does with their head, hands, fingers, or torso.

The technology has applications beyond video games, as well, particularly because it has some ability to be autonomously applied to existing software.

During a demonstration at CNET, in fact, Barel showed how he could use simple gestures with his fingers and thumb to navigate through the Microsoft Vista menu tree.

But while 3DV Systems has clients in many different fields, including the military, its focus for now is on video games and how the ZCam technology could make a dent in the traditional interface market.

The company doesn't intend to put ZCam itself on the market as a consumer product. Rather, it intends to license the technology to others, potentially a console maker such as Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo, or to PC game developers.

"We don't see ourselves selling this directly as 3DV," said Barel, "but partnering with publishers or hardware companies."

If that's the company's business model, it's not clear how receptive its desired partners will be. Reaction to the technology is mixed, with analysts offering strikingly differing views of the value of ZCam and how much it could add to game companies' bottom lines.

"It is, I think, an impressive addition to the game control interface, or any control interface (that is moving) from traditional to intuitive," said Billy Pidgeon, a games analyst at IDC who was briefed on ZCam.

"It fits into the concept of navigation that (Nintendo's) Wii has already started to go down. And although there have been similar things in camera navigation into the control interface for games or entertainment, this is more impressive because of the depth aspect."

For example, Pidgeon added, "I've seen other uses of cameras to help a gamer or user manipulate objects by tracking movement, sort of in X and Y (axes). But it's generally been pretty limited. And adding the extra navigation in the Z (axis) is going to help, completing the navigation."

One well-known manifestation of a camera giving users gestural control over their games is Sony's EyeToy, an accessory camera for the PlayStation 2 or PlayStation Portable that gives users the ability to incorporate their body movements into various games.

But devices like the EyeToy work in 2D only, and that limits their effectiveness for games like boxing, argued Barel.

"You can't do it as accurately and as naturally as you can do here," Barel said of the ZCam. "The limitation of 2D is that it only can detect motion when it's to the side. It cannot detect motion when the background is yourself."

But not everyone thinks 3DV is about to change the way things work in the video game industry.

That's in part due to the success of established systems like the Wii and its Wiimote, and the fact that developers like Microsoft and Sony are eagerly looking for ways to cut costs associated with their consoles, not add to them.

ZCam aims to free gamers from traditional controllers.

"My reaction (to ZCam) is that it's probably not going to have a dramatic impact on the gaming market," said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner who had not been briefed on 3DV's technology, "because it's not like this technology hasn't been around in some form or another."

Baker added that he'd seen a form of camera technology four or five years ago that allowed players to augment their input for games such as volleyball, and that Sony's EyeToy offered similar capabilities.

He acknowledged that those systems worked in two dimensions, while ZCam's 3D technology is probably a big step forward.

"But I don't think it's going to be such a dramatic improvement that it's going to fundamentally change the game space," Baker said. "What console manufacturers would have to do to get the attention of (game) developers is to include it in every console unit...and that's unlikely (as) they're looking to cut costs."

But one well-known technologist may have a different view than Baker.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, in fact, has hinted that technology like that of 3DV could play a role in the company's future video game efforts.

Gates talked about the possibility of such controls, during a joint interview with Steve Jobs at this year's "D: All Things Digital" conference.

"Imagine a game machine where you're just going to pick up the bat and swing it, or the tennis racket and swing it," Gates said.

Moderators Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher mocked Gates, saying such a technology already exists and it's called the Wii. But Gates disagreed. "No, that's not it. You can't pick up your tennis racket."

He later added, "You can't sit there with your friends and do those natural things," he said. "That's a 3D positional device. This is video recognition. This is a camera seeing what's going on."

In an October interview with CNET, Gates talked about a broadening role for such natural interfaces.

"People kind of gasp when they see how touch works on Surface, you know, when they touch their iPhone," he said. "'Oooo, wow,' you know, that's just such a natural thing."

He talked about them moving beyond computing devices and into other objects like tables and mirrors.

"Give us a 5- to 10-year time frame and we will wonder why our tables used to sit there and not do anything for us," Gates said.

CNET reporter Ina Fried contributed to this report.