Wave your hands in the air: Canadian startup bets big on motion gesture tech
Imagine waking up in the morning and turning off your alarm clock with a wave of your hand. You raise your palm upward and the blinds fly up, letting the sunshine pour in.
You walk into your living room and point at the ceiling light; it flicks on. You make a fist and on comes the TV. You change the channel to your favourite news station by using your index finger to write its name in the air.
On the drive to work, you flip through music tracks with the flick of a finger and turn the volume up loud by drawing a clockwise circle. A call comes in and you wave it away without taking your eyes off the road.
Waterloo-based entrepreneur Kashif Kahn says this world isn’t far away, and he’s determined that his growing software company will help to create it. Kahn co-founded the company Motion Gestures with developer Arash Abghari in 2016. In just two years, they’ve raised millions of dollars from investors in Canada, the U.S., China, Japan and India, and opened offices in Palo Alto, Tokyo, Berlin and Beijing.
Their software launched commercially earlier this year. It allows engineers to use their phone cameras to quickly record gestures that can then be integrated into all kinds of products. Since going public with a YouTube video demonstrating the possibilities, they’ve attracted the attention of industry watchers in France, Germany and China.
Using body gestures to interact with electronics isn’t new. Nintendo has been using simple motion gestures in its Wii videogame system for more than a decade. They’re also a big part of virtual reality.
But Kahn says the falling cost of components, combined with the power of his software, means complex gestures performed in 3D space can be picked up by cameras and integrated into products as cheap as a $15 toy.
“Advances in technology are now poised to bring gesture recognition out of a niche area (and) into the consumer mainstream,” Kahn says. “You’re going to see gestures in automotive, wearables, consumer appliances, home automation, toys, video games, robotics, drones … even health care, sanitation and retail,” he adds. “We want to dominate this space.”
CTV technology analyst Daniel Bader has watched the Motion Gesture’s demonstration and says that the “technology seems amazing -- like super cool.” But he’s not yet convinced that using gestures to control our devices is on the cusp of going mainstream.
“Gestures open up this whole world of potential but at the same time open up an entirely new way to frustrate people,” he says.
“Swiping between your television channels using a physical wave of the hand -- that feels natural to do that,” Bader says. “But you have to prime your TV to do that. If I wave my hand while talking to somebody and it changes the channel, that’s going to be a bad user experience.”
Bader also sees privacy concerns. In order to have a machine pick up a gesture, a camera needs to record it, and that will raise questions about who can watch what you’re doing and whether it can be hacked.
Those concerns can potentially be overcome, Bader adds. Consumers had similar concerns about smart speakers, but there were an estimated 2.5 million Amazon Echos and 3.1. million Google Home speakers sold worldwide in the first quarter of 2018 alone.
Another question Bader raises is whether people would rather memorize new gestures than use their voices or phones or hunt down the remote control. In other words, are they really more convenient?
Kahn says yes. He says people didn’t think they wanted Siri on their iPhones, but it’s now so common that some experts predict half of all internet searches will be voice-controlled by 2020.
There are also situations when we might not want to use either a button or our voice to control devices, like when we’re in the car and already using our hands on the steering wheel and our voice in conversation.
In fact, some automakers are already buying into it. BMW unveiled models in 2016 that allow users to point two fingers to shut off music, turn up the volume by making a clockwise circle with an index finger and making a pinching movement to control a parking camera.
Jaguar soon followed, offering a sunroof that opens and closes at the wave of a hand.
Even some low-cost Toyota Yaris models in Asia now have simple gesture control. Drivers can tune the radio station by moving their hand right or left in front of the console, and increase or decrease the volume by raising their hand up or down.
Bader says it’s possible that a small Waterloo company could play a big part in gesture control if it does take off and their software is as good as promised. More likely, he believes, they will get taken over by a bigger company in Silicon Valley.
Kahn says that’s not the plan, because he prefers the talent available in Waterloo. “I don’t understand why the preferred exit is to sell to an American,” he says. “Waterloo, in my opinion, is one of the best kept secrets in North America -- if not the whole world.”