Consumer Virtual Keyboards May Have Industrial Appeal



Out of thin air: Canesta has targeted
mobile computing devices, such as personal digital assistants, as an early
application for its technology.

San Jose, CA-A technology designed for one market will often prompt interest somewhere else. A case in point is Canesta Inc. (www.canesta.com), which has come up with a 3D vision sensing system. The technology is economical enough to give everyday consumer electronic devices not just the ability to "see" objects in their environment but to "react" to those objects in real time as well.

The company is using its initial application to support a virtual keypad for handheld devices. While Canesta says gadget lovers will first buy the device, machine-vision aficionados are envisioning numerous applications in industrial and other settings. For now the handheld market is its first concern for its invention, which it calls "electronic perception technology." It expects consumer products based on the technology to be out by year end.

How it works

The system uses an infrared light to illuminate an object for view by a CMOS-based sensor module. When the light is reflected back to the sensor module, a pixel array records the scene's features. Unlike digital cameras, which use variations in light and color to interpret the relative positions of objects in view, Canesta has given each sensing pixel time-of-flight measurement capability by using the speed of light to establish the distance to the object.



Hand talking: Senseboard Technologies
uses movement sensors, processors, and Bluetooth to interpret hand and
finger movements for keyboard applications.

Embedded software takes that information from each pixel to generate a precise, 3D image or graph of the object under observation. Operating at more than 30 frames/sec, the system is fast enough to gather data designating the changing geometries of objects as they move in real time and to react to it.

Now add an intelligent application. In a keyboard scenario, the Canesta sensor observes and tracks the movements of the user's fingers, translating them into keystrokes. A "virtual" keyboard, which is beamed onto a tabletop or other surface by a pattern projector, indicates where a user should place their fingers. The projected grid is convenient for users but the sensor module itself doesn't require it.

Canesta has designed the projection keyboard independently of the sensors, software, and processors so that the technology can be adapted via software programming for other uses. That means manufacturers can customize their keyboard layouts for different data input needs. They can program the system to interpret geometrical information for non-mobile devices, like point-of-sale terminals or industrial equipment.

The ability to print a keyboard onto a surface, or eliminate it altogether, would be welcomed in factories where control technologies are vulnerable to spills or other adverse conditions, says Sunderraju Ramachandran, an analyst in the test and measurement group at Frost & Sullivan. "This is a concept where there are no moving parts to fail," he says. The 3D imaging could offer a practical alternative to industrial 3D-imaging-based machine inspection systems that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, he adds.

Jim Spare, Canesta's vice president of product marketing, emphasizes that accomplishment. "What's new about this is being able to collect a 3D image in real time in a very low-cost CMOS technology," he says. He notes the chipsets will sell for $30 to $50 apiece in volume.

As of yet Canesta will not disclose potential customers, except to say that NEC has built a prototype for use in a tablet PC. The company is also talking to potential customers in the automotive, robotic systems, and intruder detection industries.

Competition

Canesta does have rivals. Senseboard Technologies from Sweden (www.senseboard.com) expects to begin selling its virtual keyboard by the end of the summer. The Senseboard VK includes two bracelet-like devices. Sensors follow hand, wrist, and finger movements and interpret them for keypad applications.

This device, manufactured by Flextronics, will be sold as an accessory compatible with PDAs or smart phones. The user does not need any kind of visual keyboard for it to work. Senseboard's founder, Gunilla Alsio, says it will sell for about $200. Her company plans to sign agreements with OEMs. And like Canesta, she believes potential applications are up to the imagination.

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