Waving goodbye to remote controls?

MAKUHARI, Japan — Soon you may be spared the hassles of hunting down a misplaced remote control somewhere in the clutter of the living room, or buried in the yard by the family dog.

In pursuit of a more intuitive user interface for increasingly complicated consumer electronics products, Panasonic and Hitachi on Tuesday (Sept. 30) independently showed off at CEATEC Japan here similar “spatial hand gesture user interfaces” for their TV sets.

The goal is to enable consumers to turn the TV on or off or switch channels, simply by waving a hand at the screen. No remote needed.

Panasonic, for example, has developed a new image sensor unit consisting of near infrared LED, special CCD and FPGA. “No laser, no MEMS are needed,” said Yusuke Hashimoto, an R&D engineer at Matsushita Electric Works, a subsidiary of Panasonic.

Panasonic's image sensor unit, installed just above a flat panel display, detects gestures by measuring “time of flight” (the time it takes for the near infrared light to hit an object and its reflected light to return to the CCD image sensor module).

Each “time of light” is measured per pixel, and its cumulative data is used to calculate the distance, thus capturing the depth information of the gesture at real time.

Presumably, one could use a stereo camera to capture similar three-dimensional information, said Yuji Takada, general manager of R&D center for information equipment and wiring products at Matsushita Electric Works.

“But a 3D camera doesn't work well when an object is placed in front of a plain white wall, or on a striped background, for example,” he explained, “because the focusing for 3D camera's two CCDs gets tough.”

For the hand-gesture user interface, Panasonic is planning to apply the same image sensor module principles used in the company's professional security sensors. In order to integrate it into TV, the professional security module — currently measuring 150 x 60 x 78.5 mm — needs to be miniaturized, he added.

Hitachi also demonstrated a “gesture-operation” TV. Hitachi's image sensor, already integrated at the bottom of its own flat-panel TV, captures the motion.

Its operation is straightforward. Simply by waving a hand in front of a TV, a user can turn on the TV. By moving a hand up and down, he activates a menu display. To adjust volume, the viewer makes circular movements.

The prototype sensor unit is set up to best recognize such gestures when the user stands at a distance of two to three meters from the TV.

In the prototype, Hitachi's image recognition software is running on an FPGA, separate from a CPU in a TV.

Although Hitachi declined to disclose details of its image processor unit, an official at the company's booth said, “Because the method is not based on image comparisons, there is no need to pre-install images in database. The algorithm is designed to detect motion at real time.”

Further, he added, “Since such an algorithm does not require a lot of processing power, we expect it to run as one of the application software on a CPU already embedded in a TV.”

–Yoichiro Hata is managing editor of EE Times Japan.

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