This article is part of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013 feature, where EDN editors and guest contributors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2012 that promise to shape technology news in 2013 and beyond.
Don’t throw out your mouse or abandon your touchpad just
yet, but traditional human-machine interface devices that
rely on two-dimensional, x-y positional information could
soon share your desktop or phone with a coming wave of HMI
devices that let you work as you move—in three dimensions.
Camera-based HMIs such as the Microsoft Kinect already
offer mid- to far-field movement-tracking capabilities
in games. The emergence of e-field-based gesture-recognition
HMIs is an important trend not only for near-field sensing but
also for recognition of a series of movements as specific gestures.
In this new kind of HMI, hand movement within a volume
bounded below by 2-D sensor arrays results in perturbations
in the e-field maintained within that sensing area (figures
1 and 2). The use of an e-field- rather than a vision-based
system opens the door to embedded-sensing applications running
the gamut from automotive and aerospace to industrial
Figure 1 E-field HMI devices generate an electric field and monitor sensors that detect field perturbations due to movements of a conductive object, such as a human hand.
Figure 2 E-field HMI subsystems need only a simple array of electrodes to generate a relatively low-frequency electric field and measure its current status.
The most dramatic example of this new kind of device
debuted in November with Microchip Technology’s unveiling
of a complete 3-D gesture-recognition IC, the MGC3130
(Figure 3), based on the GestIC technology that Microchip
acquired along with its purchase of Ident Technology
earlier in the year. Paired with a low-cost external electrode array, the GestIC device contains
an analog signal chain that measures
changes in the e-field to track hand
movements in the 3-D sensing area and
then uses its on-chip signal processor,
running code from an on-chip software
library, to determine how those
movements combine to form one of a
dozen or so preprogrammed, recognized
Figure 3 Based on Microchip’s GestIC technology, the MGC3130 combines multiple dedicated sensor-signal-conditioning signal chains, a signal processor, and flash-based gesture-recognition software to convert hand movements into a stream of recognized gestures.
Microchip’s GestIC isn’t the only
game in town for e-field sensors. Plessey
Semiconductors introduced an e-field
sensor last year, originally focusing on
health applications; recently, the company
began shipping a low-cost e-field
sensor that promises to fuel a drive
into high-volume consumer markets.
Developers can combine the Plessey
device with an embedded system to
roll their own e-field 3-D HMI products,
leveraging a rich field of pattern-recognition
Don’t count out camera-based
gesture-recognition systems. Cameras
have become nearly ubiquitous in
mobile appliances. Further, the industry
has barely scratched the surface
for multisensor solutions that find
synergy in combinations of different
For example, Microsoft recently
demonstrated a gesture-recognition
system, called Digits, that combines
camera and MEMS motion-sensing
technology. Digits uses sophisticated
analysis software to create a highly
detailed software model of the hand
in motion to track subtle gestures—something GestIC itself can’t yet do.
The hardware is rolling into place, and the software is
maturing, to offer a new form of HMI for which the sky is
literally the limit.
Hybrid-core SOCs. Compute-intensive applications
such as big data and vision systems will gain a boost from
systems-on-chip that combine one or more general-purpose
RISC processor cores with one or more specialized cores, such
as DSPs, video processors, and audio processors.
- Hardware-based security. In the notion of the Internet
of Things, unsecured access to any “thing” is a real concern,
but one mitigated by the trend toward hardware-based implementation
of safety and security features in processors and
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