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Microsoft, Samsung and the future kings of making tech hands free

By Evan Wade / April 16, 2014

Gamers are mobilizing

If pop culture is any indication, we’ve been waiting on decent hands-free technology for a long time now. Speculative concepts like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and whatever Tom Cruise was messing around with in Minority Report give us an idea of what we expect from “the future” of human/machine interaction over time: utility first, with a bit of sci-fi flourish where applicable. Today’s tech gives us a taste of both, and things are only getting better.

Kinect: the ace up Microsoft’s hands-free sleeves

Today’s video game consoles are built to “own the living room,” and gadgets like the Microsoft Xbox One Kinect literally put the control in the user’s hands. The motion sensing device allows gamers to take photos, toggle menus and play games au naturel, in terms of hardware—their outfit is entirely up to them.

While you can’t get by entirely on voice and gesture commands, the gadget, which plugs into the console and sits below or on top of your television, certainly enhances the overall experience. Tell it to load an app, initiate Skype calls, record gameplay or rewind/pause music and movies, and it will carry out your request, no questions asked.

As noted on the Xbox One’s “Innovation” page, the gadget also uses cameras to enhance the ways users interact with the system. In addition to the pre-programmed gesture commands, you can also train the system to learn your face and sign into your account whenever it sees your mug in the camera lens—an incredibly useful feature in households with multiple gamers.

Other apps, like Internet Explorer, use the peripheral to track users’ hand movements, letting them scroll around websites and select links with simple hand gestures. If you’ve ever tried to navigate a console’s web browser with a game controller, you’ll be more than happy to throw away that hunk of plastic for your bare hands.

For now, Xbox One users are the only ones with an official way to use the newest Kinect in their homes. While Microsoft has released a motion tracking solution for the PC, it’s closer to the Kinect v1, which is based on less-powerful, less-functional hardware built for the Xbox 360.

Fortunately, a Kinect v2, with hardware and capabilities matching those of the Xbox One’s hardware, is set for launch “this summer” according to a Kinect developer site. That’s huge use for PC users or developers who have been waiting to get their hands on hands free controls. With Microsoft’s push towards a centralized ecosystem, Windows 8 users and devs could make great use of the Kinect v2’s enhanced tracking abilities.

Samsung: the mobile movement king

Microsoft is far from the only tech company with a dog in the hands-free race. Samsung in particular has been active in the field for a long time now. While their home products are starting to get the gesture treatment, we can track a lot of their advancements back to the mobile arena. Their newly released Galaxy S5 is the latest and greatest example of what the big S has been up to.

A quick glance at the gadget’s how-to page reveals countless little features ranging from active engagement to passive monitoring. For example, the phone tracks the user’s face via its front camera, pausing videos when nobody’s looking at the screen and setting/locking screen orientation based on the direction the user’s face appears on the lens.

Other features require more interaction, but are still far more intuitive than standard phone commands. One new update lets users call the contact on their screen simply by raising the phone to their ear, removing the need to press the call button first. Another automatically mutes the phone when the user flips it over/puts it in her pocket, making it great for meetings, movies and other settings where peace and quiet is appreciated.

The great thing about many of these features is their simplicity. Instead of forcing users to memorize complex, action-specific gestures (i.e. the Xbox chart above), the Galaxy S5 takes things people do naturally with their phones and adds extra functionality to them. While not everyone has the need to zoom in and out of a website by pulling the phone toward/away from their face (another nifty feature on Galaxy devices), most people could do without hitting a call key before reaching out to the person whose contact they’ve already loaded.

Samsung doesn’t necessarily make as big of a deal about these little UI tweaks as other phone makers, but their track record of adding a little bit more motion control to each subsequent device in their stable shows they care every bit as much. Better yet, their inclusion of many motion-tracking features in their API packages show they want other devs to make as much use of their proprietary features as they have, and thus, give users a consistent experience with plenty of exclusive third-party app support.

The next big things in mobile motion tracking

Several upcoming technologies are primed to revolutionize the way we operate our home electronics and mobile devices. Ring, also known as the tech world’s latest Kickstarter darling, recently impressed the heck out of countless SXSW attendees with its super-precise motion tracking capabilities. Besides phone and tablet interactivity—writing texts, sending mobile payments, etc—the wearable wunderkind also lets users goof with simpler objects, assuming they’re compatible. Ring’s Kickstarter promo video shows a user turning a lamp and TV on and off with the device by waggling his finger in the air.

Some solutions could already outdate the idea of a ring-controlled gadget by removing the need for hardware altogether. We really like what the folks at AllSee are doing with wireless frequencies, for example. The gadget, while a little too large for most conventional devices in its current form, successfully recognizes disturbances in various frequencies when you move your fingers, converting them into commands for the connected device. But what’s even more awesome is its low power consumption and cost. According to one Engadget article, the AllSee can do it all for “less than a buck.

As cool as gesture/hands-free controls are today, they’re only going to improve as the technology advances and users begin to adapt to it. Which technologies and form factors come out on top will be decided as more options roll out, but anyone who’s ever cozied up on the couch, only to realize shortly after that the remote is still on the other side of the room, will rejoice once gesture controls and voice commands become commonplace in our dwelling spaces.

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