Lately, there has been some discussion about how innovation is slowing down for the consumer market, and it's Semico's opinion that that pessimistic perspective just isn't true. One of the more interesting innovations hitting the consumer market is the natural user interface that started with the Kinect but is only now being used in mobile devices.
Microchip Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: MCHP) is launching the world's first E-field-based 3D gesture controller that is small enough to fit in any type of mobile device. An E-field controller is similar to MEMS sensors, but instead uses electrodes to sense the user's actions, and similar to a sensor hub, the MGC3130 chip processes those signals. The chip includes a 32-bit DSP and integrated Flash memory for easy upgrades in the field.
When it comes to gesture recognition, there are preset and pre-recognized gestures that most people do naturally, which means the device's programmer doesn't have to worry about gesture capture. They're pre-programmed along the x, y, and z grids. The on-chip library, called the Colibri Suite, detects these intuitive and natural human gestures.
Microchip's solution works by detecting a range up to 15cm away from the surface of the device and boasts 100 percent surface coverage with no blind spots, which you might find with a camera-oriented solution. The company claims this product is also 90 percent more efficient than camera systems currently on the market today -- so efficient that designers can leave the E-field controller in a low-power, always-on mode. Being always on means our mobile devices can recognize when we approach and "wake-up" while also recognizing particular gestures that can open applications, zoom, click, etc., all without the user ever having to touch the device.
The electrodes can be any conductive material, such as PCB traces or a touch sensor's indium tin oxide (ITO) coating. Up to 5 electrodes can be used to detect motion. These can fit under a standard notebook PC keyboard. A single zone covers up to a 10-inch diagonal. The cost of these electrodes, including mounting, is well under $1. For a more cost effective solution, if the device has a touch screen, this can be used as the sensor for gesture recognition.
Thus, no electrodes need to be added. One can gesture over the screen and not touch it. This is advantageous when you do not want to touch a screen with dirty fingers or use depth of field for an application; or to avoid reaching out to constantly touch it, in a desktop-PC scenario. For larger areas, such as full-size keyboards, more than one MGC3130 can be used together, each IC controlling its own zone.
An evaluation kit is available now for $169. The MGC3130 is priced at $2.26 in high volume. Production starts December 2012, with mass production slated for April 2013.
Semico Research Corp. expects to see these types of gesture controllers on gaming handhelds, tablets, remote controls, and smartphones. Later, we expect to see this type of power savings built into the ultrabook market as well. In the meantime, existing systems can use this technology. External peripherals, such as a pad, can be connected via USB. Microchip is offering a cost-effective and low-power solution that opens up the portable market. As the MGC3130 and its evaluation kit get into the hands of developers, Semico expects to see greater innovation in human interface.