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What the Wii Hath Wrought: The Gesture-Control Space Heats Up

Hillcrest Labs threw its hat into the motion-control game this week with the release of its Loop pointer to the consumer market. Up until now, the Loop wasn’t meant for the average Joe. Hillcrest was going to just continue licensing the Freespace technology built into the device to third-party manufacturers. But with consumers facing more content choices on their TVs, Hillcrest saw an opportunity. Will buttons become a thing of the past and motion controls the new norm?

Motion- or gesture-controlled devices are hot right now. Nintendo’s Wii cleverly introduced the concept and got millions of people (including yours truly) hooked on flailing their arms while playing tennis in the living room with friends. Now other companies, including Hillcrest and Microsoft, are looking to take those gesture controls beyond just games and into your everyday TV experience.

Hillcrest’s Loop is a sleek, circular device that allows you to control your PC — or your video experience when your PC is connected to your TV — by simply pointing at the screen and selecting what you want. For those who have played with the Wii, the experience is very similar. In fact, Hillcrest is suing Nintendo for patent infringement. A Hillcrest representative wouldn’t comment on the suit other than to say it is ongoing.

But what if you didn’t need a Wii-mote or a Loop? Removing all handheld accoutrement is exactly what companies like GestureTek, Softkinetic and Canesta are working on. Raising your hands and orchestrating a series of pre-defined gestures allow users to navigate the menus, launch programs, control the volume — control everything on your TV.

Never one to let a trend pass it by, Microsoft is also getting into motion control in a big way. The company unveiled its “Project Natal” for its Xbox 360 console at E3 this year. The technology is still in the development stage, but Microsoft promises new levels of interactive game play and home entertainment control.

And control is something the average user will need more of in the coming months and years. As more content migrates from the web to the television, the number of viewing options available will increase exponentially. A standard remote control with all the buttons won’t have the flexibility or power to wade through all of the new content on your TV. The following example is a bit overused, but think about the computer Tom Cruise used in Minority Report. Quickly scan through mountains of content by swiping your hands left and right, zoom in on photos or text; plus, when you’re just using your hands, you’ll never lose your remote in the sofa again.

But don’t toss that remote out the window yet. The first generation of TVs with built-in gesture controls aren’t due until the end of this year or the beginning of 2010. Until then, you can grab Hillcrest’s Loop (for $99) to see what it’s like when your TV talks to the hand.

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