New 3-D sensors coming soon to computers, cameras, other gadgets

July 8, 2009 By Troy Wolverton

In the science fiction movie "Minority Report," set 50 years in the future, Tom Cruise's character interacts with a computer display by moving his hands in front of it.

It won't take 50 years. Thanks to a promising new kind of image sensor, consumers may be interacting with computers and other devices in the same way in less than five years.

Image are the light-sensitive inside digital cameras. Standard sensors essentially see and record flat, two-dimensional pictures. But a new generation can "see" in three dimensions, recording not only the image, but its distance from the camera.

That ability could have far-reaching implications. Among other things, it can allow sensors to track movements through three-dimensional space and to see images as three-dimensional objects.

One of the first consumer uses of these new sensors is likely to be in video games. At the E3 game conference last month, Microsoft wowed the crowd -- me included -- with its Project Natal technology that allows consumers to play video games just by moving their hands or kicking their feet. At the heart of Project Natal is a 3-D camera.

Such no-touch interfaces could soon show up in a lot more than just video game machines. In May, local startup Canesta demonstrated how a similar interface could replace remote controls for televisions. Users could browse programs, change channels and raise or lower the volume by waving their hands.

Jim Spare, Canesta's CEO, imagines other applications as well. Replace the Webcam that has become a standard component in laptops with a 3-D sensor and you could control your computer by moving your hands in front of it. Do the same thing with the camera in smart-phones and you could go from touch-screen interfaces to no-touch ones.

Canesta designs and sells 3-D image sensors, so you'd expect Spare to anticipate all kinds of uses for them. But the company has some high-powered partners, such as Honda and Hitachi, that give credence to his vision. So does Microsoft's Project Natal, though Spare won't confirm whether Canesta's chips are part of that effort.

A number of companies and entrepreneurs have been working on three-dimensional image sensing for years. Canesta has been around since 1999. And Israel-based 3DV demonstrated a no-controller interface for video games in late 2007.

But Spare argues that Canesta has finally hit upon the technology to make such sensors commonplace. The company has developed a sensor that's built on just one microchip -- and a standard CMOS one at that. That means the sensors could be mass produced at a relatively low cost, making them feasible to use in a range of consumer gadgets and other electronic devices.

Spare expects Canesta's first 3-D chips to be used in industrial devices -- such as cameras that count prescription pills -- later this year. Consumer gadgets using the sensors should hit the market next year.

If Spare is correct, the sensors could be used in digital cameras to enhance and speed up autofocus systems. They could be used in computers, coupled with facial recognition software, to authenticate and log in authorized users.

Perhaps most intriguing are their potential uses in cars. Some automakers have been placing ultrasonic sensors in the rear bumpers of cars to warn drivers when they are about to hit an object or a person. Canesta would like to see its 3-D sensors replace those ultrasonic ones.

The sensors may find a place inside cars as well. They could be used in place of weight detectors to determine if a child is in a seat and whether an air bag should deploy. They also could be used to detect when someone is inside a car when they aren't supposed to be, such as a thief or even a baby accidentally left behind by an absent-minded parent.

Maybe 3-D image sensors won't catch on as much as Spare and Canesta envision. I'm dubious, for instance, that a no-touch interface will replace the keyboard and mouse for the bulk of computer users any time soon.

Still, I see a bright future for 3-D sensors. And I, for one, can't wait until I can ditch my remote control and game controllers and enter the world of the "Minority Report."


(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Visit Mercury Center, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Explore further: Kodak, IBM See Eye to Eye on New Image Sensors

Related Stories

Kodak, IBM See Eye to Eye on New Image Sensors

September 17, 2004

Eastman Kodak Company and IBM will work together to develop and manufacture image sensors used in such consumer products as digital still cameras and camera phones. The collaboration will mate Kodak's image sensor technology ...

Kodak Announces 39-megapixel CCD Image Sensor

October 21, 2005

Eastman Kodak Company has set the quality standard for digital imaging with new high-resolution image sensors that allow commercial, studio, and other professional photographers to capture digital images with the most life-like ...

IBM Announces New CMOS Image Sensor Foundry Offering

July 14, 2005

IBM today announced the availability of technology and manufacturing services for complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensors for use in camera-phones, digital still cameras and other consumer products. The ...

Kodak, Texas Instruments Simplify Camera Phone Design

July 11, 2005

Eastman Kodak Company is making it easier for camera phone manufacturers to build next-generation devices that offer improved image quality and multimedia capabilities. New KODAK CMOS image sensors for mobile phone and consumer ...

Recommended for you

A not-quite-random walk demystifies the algorithm

December 15, 2017

The algorithm is having a cultural moment. Originally a math and computer science term, algorithms are now used to account for everything from military drone strikes and financial market forecasts to Google search results.

US faces moment of truth on 'net neutrality'

December 14, 2017

The acrimonious battle over "net neutrality" in America comes to a head Thursday with a US agency set to vote to roll back rules enacted two years earlier aimed at preventing a "two-speed" internet.

FCC votes along party lines to end 'net neutrality' (Update)

December 14, 2017

The Federal Communications Commission repealed the Obama-era "net neutrality" rules Thursday, giving internet service providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T a free hand to slow or block websites and apps as they see fit ...

The wet road to fast and stable batteries

December 14, 2017

An international team of scientists—including several researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory—has discovered an anode battery material with superfast charging and stable operation ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 09, 2009
Maybe 3-D image sensors won't catch on as much as Spare and Canesta envision. I'm dubious, for instance, that a no-touch interface will replace the keyboard and mouse for the bulk of computer users any time soon.

It's the wrong perspective to have on this issue.
Look at your current interface. It involves a combination. There are at least 3 ways to close your browser using either the mouse or the keyboard. Not one dominating another. It will catch on to replace the more cumbersome interfaces and speed up and ease up interfacing with the computer [computer in general covering all that work basically as a computing device].
But as KITT says: more sophisticated is not always better.
What happens when your sensors die?
This is where redundancy is more than necessary.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.