VW gesture controlled screen

Hand movements are the origins of human communication. But with gesticulation being such a prominent part of everyday life, scientists and designers are working together to capture human movements for technological purposes.

Unsuburbia has explored the idea of gesture-capturing technology and how we could be waving goodbye to traditional ways of operating within our homes.

The brief history of gesture-capturing technology

Gesture-capturing technology isn’t a concept of the 21st century. It’s an idea that has a long-rooted history of innovation. After all, it was American writer and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov who first dreamed up the concept of a gesture-controlled robot almost 80 years ago, in his 1940 short story Strange Playfellow.

Since the University of Illinois at Chicago created the Sayre Data Glove prototype in 1977, scientists have been working on reproducing the functions of hand gestures.

However, the systems couldn’t handle the sheer amount of data involved until the Pinch glove by Fakespace, the first commercially available gesture-based interface, was released in 1995. Even then, measuring an ungloved hand moving in three dimensions was impossible.

A more recent attempt to bring gesture-led tech to the mainstream was the Microsoft Kinect, which unfortunately wasn’t a success in the marketplace.

Gesture-capturing technology in action

We are beginning to see gesture-capturing tech creeping into our everyday lives in subtle ways, rather than on a full-blown scale.

Car manufacturer Volkswagen (VW) is one of the first big names to adopt gesture-capturing tech. It has developed an ‘innovative cockpit’ within its Touareg and Golf models, making ‘secondary activities’ as simple, and as safe, as possible. Built as part of its in-car infotainment system, gestures are used to navigate through radio stations, as well as to swap between entertainment and sat-nav functions.

In 2017, Asimov’s dream of a gesture-controlled robotic being became a reality, with the DJI-built Spark being released. This tiny drone uses hand gestures and signals to follow its owners and when signalled, will take photos from above – a handy tool in the era of the selfie.

The University of Lancaster is actively developing gesture-capturing tech to help make some aspects of everyday life that little easier. One of its innovations is Matchpoint, a system which uses motion recognition to turn any item into a TV remote. It uses a standard webcam, motion detection and a customer user interface to make it possible to swap over the channel or change the track of an album you’re listening to, purely through gesticulation.

Another use, the university says, is to help with cooking, allowing users to pause, rewind and replay any video recipes they may be watching through making a hand motion. This solves the ‘dirty hands’ conundrum, often associated when multi-tasking with cooking.

How it can be used within the home?

Think about it – how much easier could everyday household tasks be made if you could simply signal for something turn on? In an action-packed family space, the speed and necessity of gesture-capturing tech could make the traditional on/off switch obsolete. However, there would be an extremely heavy reliance on the Internet of Things (IoT) in remembering what gesture relates to what household task and respective sensor.

The ideology of the classic ‘clap on’ sound-activated lighting system can be taken to a whole new level through gestures. Movements can be designed to switch the lights on and off, and to dim or increase the brightness – the perfect solution to that “oh, will you get up and turn the light off” problem. Some might say it’s lazy, but this tech can improve user experience and efficiencies within the home.

Like the dashboards used in the VW Touareg, kitchen appliances could all be run off one gesturally-controlled ‘motherboard’ within a space. You could turn up the temperature and set a timer on your oven, switch your washing machine onto the right spin cycle and manually flicking the dish washer on could become a thing of the past. It’s about taking the ‘smart home’ notion to the absolute limit through technological advancements and innovations.

When fully developed, this tech could become an integral part of any manual job within the home. Take running a bath – a wave at a sensor placed at the bathroom door to automatically trigger the water to start running, and a sideways hand movement could adjust the temperature. Hypothetically, it could even be taken to the lengths of opening and closing in the curtains in the mornings and evenings in a Matilda-esque style.

The use of gesture-capturing tech could also improve our home’s security, through motion and facial recognition. Doing a special smile and wave to get into your home might seem farfetched, but it’s a concept that could revolutionise how we gain access to our spaces.

Giving those you need it an extra bit of help

The use of gesture-capturing technologies within the home could also be revolutionary in making tasks much easier and more accessible for those with disabilities.

Take someone who has lost use of their hand – turning a knob or flicking on the switch is something they aren’t able to do with ease. However, with the use of gesture-capturing tech, the user would simply be able to make a movement with their upper arm near to the appliance in question to action an order.

The same can be said for those with walking difficulties. With developments, long range sensors could help on simple tasks such as turning on the lights in a space without the need to get up and physically do it, which could potentially be problematic for less-mobile people. Gesture-capturing technology doesn’t make assumptions about its users – its aim is to make tasks simple, efficient and accessible for any user, regardless of physical capabilities.

Waving goodbye to traditional methods

It isn’t just our homes that are getting clever with gesture controls. Amazon has started patenting different hand movements to buy certain types of items. An example of its planned gesticulation is that drawing a musical note would start the process of purchasing new music.

Gesture-capture tech could well become the future of our homes. Even the most basic of tasks could be totally overthrown by innovation to improve our household efficiencies. But the big question is, how long will it take to develop our homes into a motion-ran system?