Google’s ‘Soli’ to Take the Touch Out of Touchscreens

by Gene Turnbow

Science fiction now officially has to scramble to keep up with real life. Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects group (ATAP) has developed a new technology that lets users move their fingers in the air to control objects in the virtual world.

It’s called Project Soli, and it made its debut last Friday at Google I/O, the big annual Google conference in Santa Clara. Soli uses radio emissions and detection to determine where your fingers are and what they’re doing, and in that sense works more or less like extremely short range RADAR (but without the high energy flesh-cooking microwaves).  The result is something close to Minority Report or Her, in which characters manipulated virtual objects by gracefully moving their hands or fingers in the air.

In one demo, the founder of Google’s Project Soli, Ivan Poupyrev, kicked a virtual soccer ball by flicking at the screen. In another, he changed the hours on a clock by turning an imaginary dial with his fingers, and then changing the minutes by raising his hands further away from the screen and doing it again.

Google said that after ten months of work, they already have the technology miniaturized to the point where it fits into a small chip about the size of a fingernail. Project Soli solves the problem of ever shrinking wearable technology where items on the displays start to become significantly smaller than one’s own fingertips. We don’t know how well the technology scales, however. It may be that it’s only good for fingertip level sensing. Other technology that works by camera tracking one’s hands, such as the Leap Motion spatial sensor may be better for gestures bigger than a knob twiddle.

We can see where control systems like this would be hugely important in virtual reality applications, especially with VR headset displays like the Oculus Rift or the Sony Morpheus being released at the consumer level within the next year. At this point, though, it’s unclear as to whether Google will make the devices themselves, or license the technology to other manufacturers.

With companies like Google pressing the state of the art forward with concerted efforts like ATAP and its Google X Lab, science fiction writers are going to have to work a lot harder to stay ahead of the real science being done. The world of tomorrow isn’t years away. It’s snuck up on us fast and gaining on us at an amazing rate.

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