Edge of Innovation

Can 3D Cameras Let Us Reach Inside Our Computer Screens?

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

It was definitely Lee Bamber’s hand on the screen, but it was no ordinary hand. It seemed pieced together from medium-sized toy blocks — a Lego hand, maybe.

If you can imagine that little white glove the cursor of your mouse sometimes turns into, but blown up really big, and wiggling its fingers and grasping at air with the dexterity of a real hand, it was pretty much that.

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Bamber, a software developer from UK-based The Game Creators, was looking down through his glasses from a long wooden podium. He invented these computer hands so he can touch objects on the other side of the computer screen.

They were designed for playing games — for pushing open doors and hitchhiking around a game world, for grabbing uzis and petting Tamagotchi — but they were also designed for sculpting and painting digital artworks, and for building games with your bare hands, like a settler on the digital frontier.

“Initiatives like Intel RealSense will completely redefine the way we communicate and converse with our computers,” Bamber said at the Intel Developer Forum in 2014.

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That’s because these tiny cameras use a pair of lenses to sense depth, similar to the way it takes two eyes to perceive depth.

In short, the computer looks out and takes a three-dimensional recording of us, so we can match up with a three-dimensional environment inside the machine.

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At that point the need to type with keys, press buttons on a gamepad, and flick your finger on a touch-screen starts to fade away — or at least that’s the dream.

Bamber makes game engines, which are the tools that help people make games. He hopes to see these tools be used for great things.

“In many ways, direct 3D control would transcend the real world, as you are no longer bound by physical constraints,” he said. “You could zoom in at a microscopic level, reverse gravity or slow down time.

These acts of creativity flow from Bamber to game designers to players, so he’s sort of the demiurge of play.

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In a follow-up email, Bamber waxed poetic about the future of computer interface, using words that have a quixotic ring, as if you’re reading science fiction and not the words of a left-brained computer engineer.

He talks about a futuristic computer that realizes you are sipping tea in between each level of a game, and knows you usually take 10 seconds to sip and put the cup down, so it intelligently uses that time to save.

He talks of a computer that will memorize all the positions of your hands.

He dreams of the day when he walks into the office and starts describing the game he wants to make to the computer, simply talking and pointing, and, poof: it’s there.

It may sound far-fetched, but then, this is the man who made the phantom hand.

Besides, an enthusiastic dreamer with a penchant for futurism is exactly the kind of person you want designing the far-flung artwork of tomorrow. That’s when “we go from the painstaking world of controlling everything we want computers to do, into one where [computers] start to intuitively help us and make our lives a little better,” as he puts it.

Isn’t that the point of technology — to make things easier so we can spend our time experiencing new things?

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