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With the Wave of a Hand…

Almost since the beginnings of television, we have dreamed of “hang on the wall’ displays. The CRT was bulky and although it produced good images there was always the future dream of displays that were like the artworks hanging on the walls in our homes. Many innovative approaches were tried to compress the bulk of the CRT into something thinner. Most failed. Finally, along came plasma panels and liquid crystals. Those two technologies allowed us to achieve our long-held dreams of flat-panel displays.

In a similar vein, many years ago we had the Dick Tracy comic strip with the watch that could communicate and even show video. Then we had the Star Trek TV series with the flip-phone-like communicators. Once again we could dream and hope to see these dreams someday become reality. And indeed they have. Today’s cell phones do even more than these fantasy communicators of yesteryear.

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So where do we go from here? Are there other unfulfilled dreams that we can work on? Currently, we are seeing a growing emphasis on developing gestures and voice commands as a way to interact with our gadgets. And certainly being able to have a clear and unambiguous conversation with an electronic device would be a good thing to have. However, we don’t seem to be there yet. Voice recognition and understanding context requires more than our current computer capabilities are able to deliver. Perhaps over the next decade or two these challenges will be overcome. Then, how about gesture recognition?

Do we really want or need gestures as a way to interact with our electronic devices? To me this seems like an even more challenging problem than voice recognition. Many of us use gestures when we are carrying on a conversation – whether in person or even by phone. These gestures do not have any specific meaning. They are simply a way for us to emphasize what we are saying. Even when I am sitting at my computer, I may take a moment to stretch and wave my hands around. This does not mean that I am conveying any kind of information or request. I am simply stretching. So if a have a supposedly intelligent gadget that is observing me, how will it know when my gestures mean something and when they do not?

Gesture recognition is not something that we have dreamed about for years and years as we did with flat-panel displays. In fact, I don’t remember ever having even the slightest desire to wave my hands, shake my head, or blink my eyes as a way to interact with an electronic device. That then leads us to the obvious question of what problem are we trying to solve or what long-felt need are we attempting to satisfy? It seems to me until we can define such an objective that gesture related technologies will remain in the novelty category.

There is of course the recently rediscovered realm of virtual reality. With all the recent efforts on head-mounted virtual reality displays, there is the natural extension that for interactive games we may want to include gestures as a way to interact with virtual objects. In that context, the ability to recognize and respond to arm and hand movements could be an interesting application. Perhaps in that limited context gesture recognition might prove to be useful. However, as far as general use for such mundane activities as turning lights on and off or controlling our televisions, I can’t see a practical way that a “wave of the hand” will ever become a main stream application.

 

Should you have some thoughts on this topic or others you may reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at CONTACT or by telephone at 425-898-9117.

 

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