Keyboard System Shows Virtual Touch

Canesta 'electronic perception technology' creates 3-D map of an image.

In describing computers, "deep" and "sensitive" are not the first words that come to mind. But a San Jose, Calif., startup wants to change that. Canesta Inc. has secured U.S. patents for chips and software that enable a computer to see an image in three dimensions and process that image for various functions. Canesta calls the concept "electronic perception technology."

The technology is based on timing the speed of light to create a 3-D relief map of an image, which makes it easier to distinguish that image from its background.

The process works like this: The light source illuminates a subject; a sensor, stored in a chip, measures the distance light travels between the subject and each corresponding pixel in the image in the chip; imaging software maps the subject in real time; and the computer in the end-user device reacts accordingly.

Canesta has big dreams for the technology—having filed 25 patents for applications ranging from computerized blind-spot detectors for automobiles to advanced biometric security systems—but initial deployments will be relatively simple.

"Initially, we were looking at a bigger picture—sight-enabling machines and devices," said Nazim Kareemi, CEO of Canesta. For now, Kareemi said, "the real problem we see is inputting information into mobile and wireless devices. Its very difficult to type data into a very small device."

Enter the virtual keyboard. Kareemi said the company is outsourcing chip fabrication and has customers who plan to use electronic perception technology to project an image of a keyboard from a mobile device onto the surface in front of it. The user can then "type" on the image of the keyboard, and the device will respond accordingly.

Canesta demonstrated such an application at a trade show recently, using a virtual piano keyboard that responded to a real piano. At a trade show, a piano will attract more attention than a cell phone, but cell phone and personal digital assistant manufacturers are the companies that plan to use the technology first, Kareemi said. Canesta plans to announce the first products based on electronic perception technology by years end.

A Jerusalem company, VKB Ltd., is working on a similar keyboard. VKB said it expects the keyboard to be useful in medical environments because its easier to keep a virtual keyboard sterile than an actual one.

Neither Canesta nor VKB has announced customers, though, and the industry is still skeptical about the actual uses of this virtual technology.

"It sounds cool, it sounds futuristic—and thats where it should stay until the future arrives," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in San Jose. "This is part of a whole class of analog-to-digital conversion technologies. The problem is that the analog world is highly variable. There is not only the process of converting the input but distinguishing the input from all the other analog items in the analog world. Thus, filtering is a big problem."

Theres also the apparent ease-of-use issue. "Its easier to type on a keyboard than to type on light," said Christopher Bell, chief technology officer of People2People Group, a media services company in Boston. "I certainly count on the tactile feedback to help me keep my touch typing on target. I can be a little off position and notice by the feel alone. But Im all for cool new ways of communicating. It just genuinely needs to be better or easier or more efficient use of my time."

Kareemi said that the second generation of sight-enabled devices will go beyond the virtual keyboard and into applications where the 3-D aspect of the technology is important.

He expects the next revision of electronic perception technology to include virtual reality games in which the computer senses the body movements of the human players, as well as blind-spot detectors for automobiles, wherein the cars computer will be able to see vehicles that the driver doesnt.

Beyond that, the company is looking at applications that would let computers scrutinize people, taking advantage of the idea that a computer could know the back of your hand as well as you do. Such applications include airport security monitors that could examine the whole body of each person who boards a plane, high-tech tailor tools that could measure a persons body in a nanosecond and Nielsen ratings systems that could evaluate the viewing audience by body type.

The possibilities are many, but Canesta does not plan to come up with all of them. "Down the road, well be offering tool kits to universities," Kareemi said.