As BlackBerry will now readily admit, gesture-based touchscreens have taken over from physical keyboards in the mobile space. But there’s still plenty of plastic keys on and around PCs. Not that people aren’t trying to change that. The Leap Motion controller is one well-funded device that’s attempting to move things along by letting you swipe in mid-air to interact with a terminal, rather than clicking on a boring old mouse.
Well, here’s another: Haptix uses twin cameras to peek at what your hands are doing and turn their actions into input signals. It supports both in-air gestures — a la Leap Motion — but also interprets 2D gestures (such as pinch to zoom) made on any flat surface. In other words, it can turn a tabletop into a touchscreen. Haptix’s creators, who have just kicked off a Kickstarter campaign seeking $100,000 to help fund manufacturing costs, are Darren Lim and Lai Xue. Lim is a 2013 Thiel Fellow and Xue has ‘used to be the youngest engineer at Intel‘ on his CV.
Supporting both 2D and 3D gestures means Haptix users can rest their hands while using it — thereby heading off any complains about tired wrists, which have been levelled at Leap Motion in (the mostly lukewarm — okay, damning) reviews. It also means the surface of a laptop keyboard can be used as a touchscreen instead of having to reach over for a trackpad or mouse. However just offering 2D gesture sensing wasn’t enough either, says Lim, arguing that the 3D sensing element is essential to making the device feel “intuitive”. “It’s crucial to see your fingers on the screen,” he adds.
Thus Haptix also supports mid-air swipes/typing too, so it’s not tethered to a flat surface if you don’t want to be. It’s a cake-and-eat it approach — with the only limitation being that gestures need to be performed within its field of vision. Currently the Kickstarter prototype Haptix has a 120 degree field of view but Lim and Xue are hoping to expand that to 150 degrees when/if they get to ship product.
And before you ask, Haptix does have an algorithm to detect when a user is actually typing on a physical keyboard to avoid confusing real typing with some other input gesture. It also includes an infrared camera so it can still function in dingy environments, a la Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral for XBox.
As well as adding a gesture interface layer to laptops and computers, Haptix’s creators reckon it could be used by people wanting to control an Internet-connected TV. Albeit, that requires rigging up the device so that it covers the appropriate patch of your coffee table. Which looks pretty inelegant, judging by their product shots. The design of Haptix certainly seems better suited to closer use-cases — such as being clipped onto a laptop screen where it can point down at the keyboard.
One laptop/PC use-case its creators envisage for Haptix is being able to optimise the work flow of people who have to manipulate a lot of data in spreadsheets — such as accountants. Once it’s affixed to their computers these Excel ninjas would no longer need to shuttle their hand back and forth to a mouse/trackpad but could perform all those essential micro-mousing movements just by sliding their number-loving fingers over the keyboard. (If ‘Kinect for accountants’ can’t rock the accounts department, nothing can.)
Haptix currently works with Windows and Ubuntu, but Android (for smart TV integration) and OS X support are also in the works. Lim and Xue are also planning on releasing an API — assuming their invention flies — so that developers can start playing around and crafting dedicated apps for Haptix. In the meanwhile it integrates with Windows via the system’s support for multitouch inputs — and Ubuntu via a driver that enables multitouch function. Lim claims Haptix’s performance is not at all laggy, and feels “as responsive as using a mouse”.
The Kickstarter campaign is offering the Haptix device itself for an early bird price of $59. There’s also a $25 pledge for people wanting to try turning their own webcam into a gesture-sensing input device using software based on the algorithms driving Haptix.