Remember the image above?
The technology seemed like science fiction when Minority Report was released 10 years ago. And it pretty much remained so: Gesture-recognition technology has taken a lot longer than expected to gain mainstream adoption. (Back in 2010, The New York Times was already calling it "one of the most significant changes to human-device interfaces since the mouse appeared next to computers in the early 1980s," but no significant products have gotten much traction.)
That is, until now.
Perhaps the most well-known product in the gesture-technology market right now is the Leap Motion--a small device with tiny embedded cameras and LEDs that lets you use hand movements to control a computer. Despite a couple of product delays, the Leap is shipping next month. So far, the device's popularity has exploded, due in part to a series of nifty explainer videos. The company won't release precise figures on number of units pre-ordered, but last time I spoke with a company rep, the number was in the "hundreds of thousands."
The Leap device is a tidy, nicely-designed little product. But the future of gesture recognition is far from what the Leap looks like; in fact, my guess is that soon it won't involve a peripheral device at all.
Why? Well, a good analogy is the CD-RW drive. Remember those? In the mid-1990s, before PCs had built-in CD-RW drives, you'd purchase one as a peripheral, plug it in, and voila: you'd be able to burn music onto a CD.
But that was expensive and clunky and, eventually, it made more financial sense (i.e. it got cheaper) for the original equipment manufacturers--the OEMs--to simply develop their own disc drives--or at the very least partner with companies that did make this technology.
And that's exactly what's starting to happen among gesture tech start-ups.
The Future of Gesture Tech
In April, Leap announced that it was partnering with HP to integrate Leap's back-end software into the next generation of laptops.
"When we first introduced the product, we knew the peripheral was great, because you could take your existing Mac or PC and transform it into a gesture-based machine," a company rep told AllThingsD at the time. "But we felt the future of motion control was being in as many devices as possible, and this partnership with HP is a step in that direction."
Leap has also partnered with Asus, the hardware manufacturer, to embed Leap's technology into its next line of laptops.
Several other device manufacturers are pursuing their own strategies.
Earlier this week, it was rumored that Apple was planning on buying PrimeSense, and Israeli start-up that's known for developing the Microsoft Kinect software. Later, the company denied the rumors. However--and this is interesting--Apple was just granted a patent for a new type of technlogy to project a screen from a device (say, an iPhone) and let the user make hand gestures to control what's on screen.
Yesterday, Intel bought Omek, another Israeli-based gesture-recognition start-up, for $40 million. "The acquisition of Omek Interactive will help increase Intel’s capabilities in the delivery of more immersive perceptual computing experiences," an Intel spokesperson told PC World.
Even Qualcomm, the smartphone-maker, is getting into the game. In 2011, the company purchased GestureTek, another gesture-recognition start-up. "Our acquisition of key technology and assets from GestureTek will strengthen Qualcomm's smartphone product portfolio and enable our customers to launch products with new and compelling user experiences," a company rep said in a statement at the time of acquisition.
And of course Microsoft, the maker of Kinect, is looking to embed the Kinect technology into future product lines.
So while it's taken longer than expected to get here, mainstream gesture recognition is right around the corner. Now the question is, which manufacturers will come out with the best products--and which start-ups will get acquired in the process. Stay tuned.