Waving goodbye to touch screens

Devices equipped with a new generation of touch-free interfaces could appear on the market by the end of next year, according to US display specialist Ethertouch.

The company is working with the likes of Nokia and Microsoft to create applications for its technology, which can sense an operator’s finger movements in 3D. It aims to replace conventional human machine interfaces such as keypads or mice with non-tactile control via motions or gestures that will enable uses to simply point at a desired area of a display screen and zoom in on the relevant section.

In operation, an array of Ethertouch sensors track the position and velocity of a user’s finger or hand as it passes through a sensing field and convert the data into a digital signal, which is then handed off to a processor to perform calculations on the data.

Dr Francois Kapp, senior engineer at Ethertouch, said that this ability to measure velocity as well as position makes the technology particularly attractive to the computer games industry, where it could enable a new level of immersion in virtual reality gaming.

While other companies have developed IC-based capacitive sensors, Kapp claimed that Ethertouch’s was the only one capable of tracking movement in 3D. He also said the company has worked out how to produce the sensors from any conductive material, making the device significantly cheaper than other technology.

The ability to enjoy 3D interaction with the system fades as the user moves more than about 1ft away. However, the system can be used effectively as a proximity sensor at a range of several feet and the company is also investigating a number of security applications.

Kapp said that in the longer term larger displays should make it possible to stand further away and reap the full benefits of the technology, making a reality of the type of system that featured in the film Minority Report.

While Kapp was reticent about specific projects, he did reveal that the company is working with Nokia, Microsoft and [hi-fi specialist] Bang & Olufsen ‘on a set of applications that couldn’t be more diverse’. He said the technology is likely to make its commercial debut in lower- volume applications such as interactive display screens in shops.