Does Gesture-Recognition Technology Have a Role in Today’s Factories?

August 6, 2013

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Gesture-recognition technology was introduced to mass consciousness more than a decade ago via the Tom Cruise film Minority Report. Now no longer science fiction, it allows a computer to recognize and respond to commands from a user’s face or hands without touching anything. But does gesture-recognition technology fit in an actual, live manufacturing operation today?

Earlier this year IMT reported on a demonstration at the Hannover Messe trade show in Germany, which showed how a “factory of the future” might use gesture-recognition technology in automotive manufacturing. The system featured a non-contact, gesture-recognition system developed by BMW Group that allows a quality assurance worker to “examine and document flaws in a component simply by pointing.”

The demonstration featured off-the-shelf hardware, including a standard computer and two Microsoft Kinect systems, each comprised of a camera and 3D sensors. The advantage of the system is that an employee can remain at the workstation while inspecting a testing object. Workers save time by not having to walk around the shop floor, while also enjoying a more comfortable work environment.

Last August Ford of Europe announced it was working to develop “a complete virtual factory” for a car assembly line, which would be largely enabled by gesture-recognition technology. “We have already started work on our virtual factory project, so that we won't have to go to the real assembly line to conduct tests or research possible plant upgrades,” said José Terrades, simulations engineer for Ford of Spain, in a prepared statement at the time.

Gesture-recognition technology is young -- and dominated by the video gaming industry. A May 2013 market report on gesture-recognition technology notes, “The major drivers for the Americas gesture-recognition market are intensive efforts by OEMs for one-stop integration and a highly developed gaming and entertainment industry. Currently, consumer electronics application contributes more than 99 percent of the Americas gesture-recognition market.”

Beyond games, the technology would be useful anywhere touching a screen or other computer interface is not possible or optimal. For example, last year MIT Technology Review wrote that gesture-recognition technology would be useful for “surgeons who don't want to touch a keyboard with sterilized hands midway through surgery.”

Beyond bleeding-edge adopters, however, gesture-recognition technology isn’t developed enough for most applications. Management consultancy Deloitte observed that gesture-recognition and voice controls are offered on some high-end TV sets as an attention-grabbing novelty. However, the firm predicts that most users will “revert to a standard remote control due to the unreliability, impracticality, or physical effort of using voice or gesture-control technologies.”

Notably, one of the top gesture-recognition development firms, GestureTek, lists approximately 40 uses and end-markets for gesture-recognition technology, including digital signage, television production, and nightclubs, but doesn’t list manufacturing. Peter Zatloukal, head of engineering for the Kinect for Windows program, told the MIT Technology Review that manufacturing is a possible area of use for gesture-recognition technology, but didn’t provide specifics.

There will surely be genuinely useful manufacturing applications some day. “Soon, gesture recognition will be a ubiquitous and omnipresent tool in our everyday life in ways we can barely imagine,” say officials of optical technology manufacturer JDSU, which notes that gesture-recognition technology is best thought of as a complementary rather than displacing technology.

“Gesture recognition will most likely add functionality to existing interfaces rather than eliminate them. An effective user interface provides many different ways to accomplish the same task,” the company claims, adding that “gesture recognition will be a ubiquitous add-on capability integrated with other technologies; it will enhance rather than replace user-interface components.”

Grant Odgers, CEO of New Zealand-based Swiftpoint, which just signed a global licensing agreement with Belkin International to put Swiftpoint’s patented GesturePoint hardware and software technology in tablets, notebooks, smartphones, and PCs, also downplays the idea that gesture recognition will render mouse and touch technology obsolete.

“Take for example, the latest release of Microsoft Office 2013,” Odgers said. “It has touch and gesture features built in, but the reality is that doing Excel spreadsheets and Word documents with a touch screen does not work well at all. So we still use a keyboard and mouse.”

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