Eye robot: Start-up offers vision to machines

Technology could let automatic doors size up situation before opening or allow rearview mirrors to spot a drunk behind the wheel.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
3 min read
Some work to bring eyesight to blind people. Canesta works to bring it to cars and automatic doors.

The San Jose, Calif.-based start-up, mostly known for its virtual keyboard, will release on Tuesday a developer kit that will let other manufacturers build machine vision into their products. For example, a factory robot equipped with Canesta's Equinox chip, on which the developer kit is based, could determine the size and shape of items around it and therefore determine what it needs to pick up first.

Similarly, an automatic door could figure out if the thing in front of it was a person or a dog, or whether a person planned to actually enter a store or just inadvertently stepped on the rubber mat while passing, said Jim Spare, vice president of development at Canesta. Cutting down unnecessary door openings could reduce energy costs and beef up security.

The Equinox chip "can recognize the contours of a human versus leaves or a squirrel," Spare said.

The company's technology is part of a growing market for sensor technology, which advocates say can help devices better gather information about animal behavior, activity inside buildings or movements on a battlefield.

Volvo and Infineon are promoting active safety technologies for cars, such as rearview mirrors that can monitor a car's blind spots and help prevent drivers from shifting into an occupied lane.

Eye-tracking systems that figure out if a driver is tired or even intoxicated will start to come out next year for the trucking industry, according to Richard Lind, director of advanced engineering at Delphi.

"If you drop something on the floor, or are drowsy--we can measure the blink rate," Lind said.

Critics, however, point out that this sort of technology raises massive privacy concerns because it could mean that in the future one might never be alone again.

The Equinox chip essentially combines a 4,096 pixel image sensor--which captures a two-dimensional map of a scene--with an infrared sensor, which determines depth and distance. In the virtual keyboard--which is a laser light image of a standard keyboard, the imager relays data about the location of each finger on the keyboard layout. The infrared technology, meanwhile, determines if the individual fingers are going up and down. A central processor then correlates the data to determine whether a finger has struck a "key" or is merely resting.

Industrial manufacturers can now install infrared and imaging technology in their products, but it's expensive and involves putting in two different chips. Canesta believes it can make the process easier and less expensive.

Security companies may begin to install Canesta's technology in finished products by late 2005, Spare said. And, like the trucking industry, the automotive business is also looking at Canesta's product. Several injuries occur each year when airbags deploy while a small adult or a child is sitting in the passenger seat. (Auto makers recommend against putting kids in the front, but it happens.)

By equipping airbags with Equinox chips, 3D information about the passenger could cancel a deployment, Spare said. Smart airbags, however, may not come out until 2009.

"The good thing about the auto industry is that they sell a lot of products," Spare said. "The bad thing is that it takes a lot of time."

Currently, Canesta is waiting for handheld makers to come out with products containing its virtual keyboard. The product is complete, but it is a matter of when PDA makers want to start adding the feature. The virtual keyboard adds about $100 to the price of a handheld, Spare said.

The Equinox-related developer kit costs $7,500 and comes with an Equinox imager and the necessary software.