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You thought 'slide to unlock' was bad? Gestures are the next patent battle

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Analysis Finger gestures in three dimensions are the next big thing in controlling computers, or so we're sadly told.

The companies betting that we'll want to manipulate everything electronic around us with a wave of a hand are already laying claim to various types of body movement.

The technology to detect gestures is included in laptops and televisions shipping right now, but like the touchscreen phone world, it is riddled with patent applications.

Just as no one except Apple can make a phone with a "slide to unlock" feature, no one except PointGrab can make a TV that mutes when a finger is placed on one's lips. No one except EyeSight can recognise a gesture without taking the background into account, at least until the lawyers get to work.

Patenting gestures is nothing new: half the finger movements used on the iPhone were first protected by FingerWorks. Apple bought the biz before litigation could establish if the explicit use of the word "keyboard" made the FingerWorks patents irrelevant, but the legal tussles around slide to unlock (removed from Samsung phones following Apple's legal victory over the feature) and bouncing menus (removed, but could be back following the court decision that it was an obvious design) have thrown the patent issue into stark relief.

The court shenanigans reminded everyone that owning patents, even on the most obvious methods of gesture control, is critical to the success of future white goods, TVs, computers and home entertainment kit of all shapes and sizes.

PointGrab, the Israeli company that provides the gesture tech for Samsung's Smart TVs, has a UK patent describing the use of a camera to detect a hand and respond appropriately to a command gesture: a single articulation that the TV (or other device) would recognise as a precursor to an instruction.

The software company said its code is in 10 million devices already, and it is aggressively patenting all sorts of gestures used to control devices as well as deploying them. The aforementioned finger-on-lips will come to Samsung TVs as part of an "Evolution Kit", a hardware and software upgrade that goes on sale in May.

EyeSight, another Tel Aviv local, has a US patent covering very similar ground; the ability to recognise a finger (or any other object) using perspective to extract foreground from background (making it operable against a moving surface) and recognise gestures to control a device. Just like PointGrab, EyeSight has patents pending approval.

Those granted patents are very broad, and could be weakened by prior art once the lawyers tear into them. But the more specific gestures (such as finger-on-lips) will be easier to defend so there's an ongoing race to establish the most intuitive physical articulation for common actions, such as turning on a TV, or adjusting the volume on the stereo.

But none of the companies involved will restrict themselves to home audio-visual equipment.

The cameras observing human hands have been mercilessly squeezed in size and price while the processing power needed to analyse the live video is getting cheaper by the day. This allows gesture technology to find its way into white goods, such as washing machines and thermostats. Those are prototypes at the moment, and will remain so until a standard gesture vocabulary is developed, and one that isn't patented into the hands of the company with the biggest lawyers.

So, in the interest if prior art, we invite El Reg readers to tell us, in the public comments here, what gestures they feel would be most useful in controlling their technology, in the hope that (as long as it's not in one of those patents already in process) making it public here will significantly increase the chance of you one day getting to use it. ®

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