Cars Will Get Kinect-Style Hand-Gesture Controls This Year

Source: SoftKinetic via Bloomberg

SoftKinetic's automotive demo on August 5, 2014. Close

SoftKinetic's automotive demo on August 5, 2014.

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Source: SoftKinetic via Bloomberg

SoftKinetic's automotive demo on August 5, 2014.

(Corrects company name starting in second paragraph.)

Many newer car models have cameras attached to their exteriors to assist with parking and switching lanes. Pretty soon, video equipment may start riding shotgun.

SoftKinetic, a Belgian video company that supplies sensors for Sony's PlayStation 4 and Intel devices, has produced a system for operating a vehicle's controls using hand and finger gestures. For example, a driver could move his finger in a circular motion to turn up the volume and then point to the right to pull up a digital map.

The Brussels-based company is working with Delphi Automotive, a global electronics supplier for cars, to include the technology in a production vehicle available later this year, said Tim Droz, the general manager for North America at SoftKinetic. He declined to identify which automaker will use it.

Car companies are struggling to feed the insatiable demand from consumers who want more tech on their dashboards. Automakers are trying to offer more features without requiring drivers to constantly fiddle with knobs and buttons.

"You're so constrained in what you can do," Droz said in an interview. "You want to keep the driver focused on the road and not playing with technology."

Cars are becoming smartphones on wheels, with sensors to prevent collisions, entertainment systems, navigation and voice control. Tech companies are piling in, and trying to drive the future of vehicles with efforts such as self-driving cars from Google and Baidu. Riding that wave, Israel's Mobileye went public in July and has a market value of more than $7 billion.

SoftKinetic has demonstrated hardware that uses time-of-flight tech, based on a sensor that measures the time it takes infrared light to bounce back from a surface. The system, which is kind of like radar, should work in bright sunlight or total darkness, and pick up the slightest hand gesture—unlike Microsoft's Kinect, which typically requires sweeping arm movements. Some hobbyists have rigged up Kinect cameras in their cars anyway as a novel method for controlling their media centers. A San Francisco startup called Navdy is working on a gesture-controlled gadget with a translucent screen that displays smartphone notifications.

Gestures won't replace voice activation or steering-wheel buttons. Hand waves would work alongside existing technologies and could make up for some of their shortcomings. For instance, speech recognition can be thrown off by noisy kids, and the wheel doesn't have enough room for buttons to lower the air conditioning, Droz said.

With SoftKinetic's camera system, the driver can point and use other finger movements to navigate the car's maps, climate control, phone and entertainment functions. The system, which Delphi is assembling, embeds the camera sensors in the inner roof of the vehicle. In the future, Droz said cameras could be mounted on the dash facing the driver to monitor head position and eye gaze, and track whether the person is dozing off or not paying attention.

While the hardware is important, an extensive software library containing the gamut of gesture possibilities is the key to making the system responsive, Droz said. A certain finger gesture, typically reserved for those rare moments of road rage, probably won't be included in the database.

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