Just as Apple transformed the way we interact with our mobile phones, Microsoft is trying to convince the world to adopt touchscreen interaction for everyday computing – but others, such as Elliptic Labs, are seeking to introduce alternative methods of device control that bring us ever closer to realising the fantasy of science fiction.
Founded in 2006, Elliptic Labs now has offices in Palo Alto, California, and Oslo, Norway. The company’s initial research background was in echo-management systems for multi-antenna mobile communication.
Today, Elliptic Labs launched its patented technology for touchless gesturing using ultrasound technology. This technology will allow users to control a device using hand movements that are picked up via soundwaves.
Sight versus sound
The key difference between Elliptic Labs’ technology and camera-based motion control like The Leap from Leap Motion is that the device does not need to ‘see’ the gestures to pick up on them. Soundwaves can still be detected in the dark and they aren’t limited to what can be captured in the range of a camera lens.
“Camera-based solutions can only ‘see’ out in the opening angle of the camera, but ultrasound can actually ‘feel’ you around the whole screen, so it can feel your hand at the side of the screen and all the way around the screen and on top of the screen – so you have a much wider field of use than a camera-based system,” explains Morgan Kjolerbakken from Elliptic Labs.
As with motion control, this touchless gesture technology creates a three-dimensional interaction space, adding the element of depth. “It can detect gestures all around the screen in any direction,” says Kjolerbakken. “For instance, when you’re selecting tiles on the Windows 8 Start screen, you just go a little closer to the screen and we use the 3D positioning to recognise the gesture.”
While the current version of the technology is built for laptops, Kjolerbakken says it’s not limited to this format and could be added to phones and tablets for all sorts of uses, such as sharing documents, navigating files, browsing the web and gaming.
Starting with Windows 8
Today marks the launch of the SDK for Elliptic Labs’ ultrasound-based touchless gesturing, as well as a Windows 8 Gesture Suite. Microsoft’s new touch-based operating system is perfectly suited to this new technology and all the touch gestures users are already familiar with are replicated in these controls.
“This video shows you all the gestures that you already have on the Windows 8 system, but the touchless version of it,” says Kjolerbakken. As you can see in the demonstration above, users can select Live Tiles, browse the web, scroll pages, pull up menus and perform all the usual tasks without ever touching the computer screen.
The technology uses speakers and up to eight microphones to pick up on users’ gestures. The components are inexpensive, but Elliptic Labs still needs to convince manufacturers that it will be worth their while to install them. “At the moment no one has implemented the hardware in a notebook yet, so we have made a Starter Kit available to make application developers and OEMs start playing with this technology and integrate the gestures into their own software,” says Kjolerbakken.
Kjolerbakken believes touchless gestures are more natural for users who will no longer have to reach out and touch the screen in front of them – which also means less screen cleaning and need for screen adjustments.
Elliptic Labs also claims its technology consumes 95pc less power than camera-based alternatives – a significant saving on energy usage. “It’s well-suited for smaller devices, like phones and tablets that depend on battery,” Kjolerbakken notes.
While the technology is ready for Windows 8, the team has plans to grow to other platforms. “The SDK is for those who want to go beyond Windows 8, for those who want to make their own applications and integrate gestures the way they would like it to be,” says Kjolerbakken.
Developers can even create their own gestures using the SDK. “You can define a pattern on the screen where you would like the user to do a gesture and actually make your own,” he explains.
The Elliptic SDK, Starter Kit and Windows 8 Gesture Suite are all available from the Elliptic Labs website.