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CES: Wii Begets A Motion Game

Visitors who do enough searching through the maze-like exhibition halls of CES in Las Vegas can find firms that are building on the motion-sensitive idea that Nintendo pioneered with its Wii. And they've got big ideas.

Take GestureTek. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company has built "gesture-based" technology that's reminiscent of Tom Cruise's wide-screen Web-browsing from the movie “Minority Report”.

One GestureTek system, called AirPoint, completely takes hand-held controllers out of the equation, letting consumers manipulate action on a game screen by merely pointing and motioning with their hand.

AirPoint is a roughly one-foot long, narrow rectangle that lies flat on a desk or table. An array of cameras and infrared sensors built into the system aim upward and create what GestureTek General Manager Ed Fowler calls "an invisible curtain of light."

A hand that hovers above the device breaks the invisible curtain, giving feedback to the system. Fowler demonstrated how AirPoint lets him move a pointer around a computer screen merely by pointing where he wanted it to go. A user "clicks" by holding his or her hand still for a second or two.

Another GestureTek device, GestXtreme, monitors motion for the user through a camera that points from the computer. Fowler demonstrated the surprisingly nimble device with a game application. Using only hand motions, he controlled a surfer who flew between skyscrapers in an urban landscape that looked like something out of the classic sci-fi film “Blade Runner”.

GestXtreme can even photograph a user's face then insert it into the game. GestureTek co-founder and chief technology officer Francis MacDougall used the system to photograph his face and incorporate it into a soccer goalie onscreen. As soccer balls flew at a goal onscreen, MacDougall batted them away with his hands.

Last spring, GestureTek signed a deal to provide Japanese mobile telecom company NTT DoCoMo with technology that lets consumers manipulate the screen on camera-enabled cell phones by merely jerking their hand or flicking their wrist.

Users can negotiate a phone-based Tokyo subway map or control on-screen action in a phone-based game. (Games on cell phones are much more common in Japan than in the U.S.) As of the end of 2007, GestureTek's technology was embedded into more than 3 million DoComo phones.

Hillcrest Labs, based in Rockville, Md., has developed technology called Freespace that can, for example, let consumers explore various on-screen content with a hand-held device that responds to subtle wrist movements. Hillcrest's philosophy, as explained by Andy Addis, the company's executive VP for marketing, is that the exploding amount of content available on consumers' televisions will eventually overwhelm remotes that depend on up-down-left-right buttons and number buttons.

With a Freespace-enabled device, a consumer could use a flick of the wrist and a single click to spatially navigate through graphic displays of media options—on-demand movies, home shopping, or channel-surfing—rather than scrolling through lists or entering channel numbers. Unlike a laser pointer that someone might use in an on-screen demonstration, a device using Freespace technology even controls for hand tremors so that it always moves fluidly across the screen.

Hillcrest says it has signed multiple consumer electronics manufacturers who plan to use Freespace in their own devices in 2008, Addis said, though he declined to name them.

Jakks Pacific, of Malibu, Calif., makes a set of controllers that fall somewhere between the Wii controller and Activision’s Guitar Hero played on Sony's PlayStation 2. The company demonstrated various Ultimotion concept at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Made more specifically for the children's market, a Jakks controller for a tennis game looks and feels like a real tennis racket. A controller for a football game is literally a motion-sensitive football. Each controller is designed for an individual game.

Jakks says it hopes to achieve a role-playing dimension in video games, merging the gaming and traditional toy spaces.

GestureTek's Fowler predicts that motion-controlled technology will continue finding a place in more products, from phones and games to Web browsers:

"It's not something that could happen, it's something that can and will."

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