Daily Archives: March 22, 2013

Magic fingers and digital spells

There can’t be many readers who haven’t seen some film or TV programme or at least read a book where a witch or fairy points her finger and magic flows from her fingertip to execute her intent. Wizards can do it too, but they tend to use wands. Is it just that men like gadgets more and women are more in touch with their bodies? Maybe to a point, but that certainly isn’t universally true. Anyway, digital spells will be here soon.

Gesture recognition such as pointing at something has been around as a games interface since the Nintendo Wii, maybe before that. The Wii needed a cumbersome remote control, but with more recent machines, you can just use your fingers. That’s fine when you have the detector in front of you, and the computer only has to follow the direction of pointing and detect a key click or movement. But most of the time, you don’t. 

Some wristwatches have had digital compasses for decades, proving that they don’t need to be large. So do my iPhone and Nexus. But my iphone and Nexus are usually somewhere else, like my jacket pocket or briefcase, though I usually have a watch on when I am away from home. Some people seem glued to their mobiles, and they could also be used, but for those of us who aren’t, digital jewellery such as watches or signet rings offers a potential substitute to detect hand or finger gestures.

Knowing location and direction of pointing is fine if you can determine them cheaply and accurately in small devices, but adding a tiny and cheap camera to capture some visual context such as the shape of buildings nearby can help home in much on the target more accurately. Something like a signet ring, or indeed a watch, could easily house all that is needed. GPS positioning isn’t the only kid on the block. Wireless LANs, mobile phone networks and other gadgets you have in a pocket or bag will do just as well. I also think we will soon get urban positioning systems that give location to millimetre accuracy throughout urban areas.

Accelerometers can measure both the path and speed pattern of movements so fancy gestures could be used to determine the purpose of the point, i.e which digital spell to activate.

Also, your hand can make a lot of different shapes, and these can be determined by wearing a few rings and automatically monitoring their relative orientation. They don’t have to be bulky, even a very thin band could be enough.

So, pointing a finger and making a shape with the other fingers, or making some special hand movement before or during the gesture, you could make hundreds of spells. One to make a frog, another if you prefer mice. In augmented reality you’ll be able to do that. Your memory of which gesture links to which spell would run out long before the library of potential combinations would.

Digital spells could link into any electronic system or app as an intuitive interface. Paying for a drink, sending a message to an attractive stranger, passing a business card, authenticating identity to a bank machine, controlling a TV or a PC display to pretend it is touch sensitive. All of these could be easy. As augmented reality takes shape, your hands will become building tools.

Digital spells will make us feel more powerful too. Who wouldn’t get a thrill from making a gesture at an annoying person and turning them into something horrible?

And as Arthur C. Clarke used to say, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.