Not Yet Nostradamus

The day before yesterday a good friend of mine asked me if I did know anything about 6th-sense technology. I had to dissapoint him that I did not know about it. He gave me a quic description and immediately probably bashed in his enthousiasm. I don’t do that on purpose; I am Dutch, so I like to be negative. But, I decided to read up upon it and actually, the concept is nice. I will introduce you quickly to the concept of 6th-sense if you do not know what I am talking about. It is a technology, actually more a combination of technologies (camera, motion sensors etc.) that combined work as an ‘extra sense’ of you as a person that makes interaction with things around you easier. I will not go too much futher in the detail; you can read all about it if you search upon the keywords ‘6th sense technology’ in any search engine.

Anyway. Although there were some nice features and things, for me it felt like I had seen this before. A long, long time ago back even in the time that I was still in the Academy. Because one of the things that they did like to say there is that something was going to be the future! That it was the next big thing! And to be honest, I read that also all the time online, especially in a competitive market as IT where there are a gazillion minds fighting for attention. But things like the 6th-sense technology in my mind shows a good application of long existing technologies, and also a lot, a lot, of marketing talk. It requires a camera, special caps on your fingers, a microphone that is all hanging from your neck. True, with correct financing that can all be jammed in a nice looking piece of jewelry maybe and once it is on the market long enough, it actually might be cheap to buy even. So, technology is not so much of an issue, although it looks like that in the videos. Technology in the end is always a bridge that can be crossed one day. The other question is, do we really want it?

IBM developed Dragon Speech in the ’90s. Software that really was so far ahead for it’s time, that was the near-perfect speech recognition. It is still around, and still is seen as the best speach-recognition system around. But everyone in that time was saying we all would be talking to our computers then, or phones. But people never talk about psychology. People prefer not to talk to non-living organisms. The reason is simple, we do not expect a response of something that cannot respond to what we say. It is a basic rule of interaction, a person will not initiate an action if there is no expectation of a response. Talking is a communication skill. As long as computers are not able to recognize emotion, deeper meanings of things and reading between the line, speach recognition as an interaction method will be limited to dictating and calling your home number on your phone.

Motion is for example already far more accepted. Especially with gadgets like the iPhone, Wii and already a couple of years back the PS2-Eye, people start to use all kinds of motions and expect tools to respond to it. But even that has been around for a very long time, and only now catches up, and even then in the most basic of forms. We as people perform so many actions that we communicate with, most of which we do not even control; body-language, tone of voice, movements to support what you are saying, sighing, gazing out of a window, blushing, etc. We as a person are used to deal with those things, or not (and then we call it ‘bad communication skills’). One of the things that makes us ‘human’ is that those communications are not always going right. There is not expected response. Take, for example, expressing your love to someone for the first time; there is no satisfaction garantuee there. Billions of people who have been rejected can assure you that. And it is with so many things. Are you married? Well, check the differences in communications between men and women in general.

So, if we cannot even communicate correctly ourselves, how can we communicate with a device that expects us to do it perfect. And this 6th-sense technology does. In the example video that I saw the person who is demonstrating the technology draws a circle on his hand, and the time appears also on his hand. The circle-motion with  your finger means ‘gimme the time’. Terrible example. Because with this 6th-sense I have to raise both arms, hold them in sight of the camera, make a gesture that needs to be understood, so I have to do it clearly, and then the time is projected on my hand (so I have to keep my hand up). Hmmm. That is indeed so much easier than to take a look at my watch.

Another example in the video is holding your hands in the square-shape to ‘frame’ a part of your view, and the camera makes a picture of it. Wow. That might actually be nice for a basic use, but if you are, just like me more advanced in Photography, you need ISO-settings, Auto focus, Depth-of-field, flash-settings, shutter time. It can all be developed, but will it be really more easy than a camera?

Why is it, that with most ‘the next best thing’ developments that we read upon have to do with technologies that mimic something that we as humans do far better than any system we have. 6th-sense first has to recognize for example something it sees in it’s vision from the camera. Then it hooks up online, needs to find the exact same thing (so it’s detail-recording must be excellent to recognize an item in shadow, in a different point of view, when something is on top of it – in an everyday situation) and find out what it’s settings are. Have you tried to Google for information of a certain object in your house? It might take you 7-8 tries to get it right.

Humans work easier. Take a look outside. You do not have to run inside, get your encyclopedia to recognize that that wooden/green thing there is a tree. You might actually immediately know what kind of tree it is. When you say ‘Hello’ to your neighbor, and he says ‘Hello’ back but looks at you in anger, a computer might see that as a ‘mission accomplished’ while you might thing ‘I still have his lawnmower! He is blazing mad!’.

So, I don’t believe so much yet in things like 6th-sense. Things that are developed to do things that we can do ourselfes so much better in such a degree that it is almost laughable. But, on the other end; to get to a good final product, it has to go through a lot of stages. So, 6th-sense might not be that impressive, maybe it is the basis of a technology that in 20 years does it magnificantly.

I do see an application though for this, and that is in a specialized environment. Take it out of everyone’s life, and make it for example for the medical world, or for cars, or for disabled people. But if you check that, you will see that that market is very populated: Dragon speech is ruler in speech recognition in the medical and office field. Microsoft rules with Sync in the automotive market that does exactly what 6th-sense tries to do; simple communications. Volvo is testing for years and years of object recognition in it’s cars. Etc. etc.

But then, to wrap this up. Don’t take my word for it. I was the one who in 1992 thought that Internet would not have a chance of being succesful. * Ahem! *


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