Gesture-Recognition System Can Transform Just About Anything Into a TV Remote

The Matchpoint system allows a user to control volume and playback functions with a coffee cup, a hand gesture, or a household pet.

In the realm of First World problems, the TV remote control has been an annoyance for years. It's too complicated, too easily lost, and generally just a perennial problem area in the annals of consumer technology.

Researchers at Lancaster University in England may have finally found a solution with a gesture control system that can turn pretty much anything within reach into a remote control — your coffee cup, a couch cushion, … the cat.

Dubbed the Matchpoint system, the gesture-control technology works by looking for particular gestures made with an object, or body part like your head or your hand. Using a standard webcam, Matchpoint allows the user to assign commands — changing the channel, adjusting the volume — to specific objects within the camera's range of view.

The technology isn't new: Microsoft's Kinect system works much the same way for game consoles and PCs. But the Matchpoint system employs a few small and clever differences.

For one thing, it doesn't need to be "trained" or mapped to a particular object — pretty much anything will do. In its basic mode, the software simply looks for a rotating movement. You can use your hand, or your drink, or — in a pinch — your pet. That rotating movement triggers a series of others options, opening onscreen indicators for what the research team calls "spontaneous spatial coupling."

By looking only for that first rotational gesture, the Matchpoint system does not need to be initially calibrated and it can recognize this first "pay attention" command whether you're standing in front of the TV or sitting farther back in the room.

After triggering the system with the first gesture, an onscreen menu pops up presenting further options, contextual to whatever TV program you're using. Let's say you're watching a video. The menu might give you two options — playback and volume. Rotate your coffee mug to sync with the movement onscreen and the system knows to watch your mug for playback commands. From that point on, every time you rotate the mug clockwise, the video will fast-forward. Go counter-clockwise and the playback will rewind.

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Meanwhile, you could map the volume to your left hand, say, and the system starts tracking that hand. Raise your hand and the volume increases. Lower it and … well, you get the picture.

Christopher Clarke, developer of the technology and a Ph.D. student at Lancaster University's School of Computing and Communications, said the goal with Matchpoint was to create a gesture control system where users could essentially improvise.

“Our main aim in developing MatchPoint was to provide users with a technique that does not constrain how they interact with the system,” Clarke told Seeker. “Current gesture technology places limitations on how the user can interact with the system — mustn't be holding an object, must be clearly visible to the camera, and standing two meters away. [With Matchpoint] users are free to use any body part or object to interact with the system, and it does not require the user to be in a specific position such as sitting or standing.”

The gesture control assignments can be decoupled at any time, and the system resets itself when you turn off the TV or switch to another application. Going the other way, you can program the system to remember a “long-term coupling,” in which case your mug would always control playback and your left hand would always control volume.

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Clarke said the system has additional applications for anyone who needs to control a video while holding an object — if you're wielding a mixer while following a recipe, say, or a drill while watching a YouTube instructional video. Matchpoint could also prove useful for anyone with a disability that prevents the use of a traditional remote control.

For now, Matchpoint is in an early prototype phase, Clarke said, and it will be a while before the technology has any chance of making into the commercial market.

“We are currently looking into commercialization opportunities, but it is a little bit too early to say at the moment,” Clarke said. “The applications we find most interesting involve 'sterile' applications, such as surgery or working in the kitchen, where it is desirable to have a system that users can use any type of object with and doesn’t involve touching things and cross-contaminating objects.”

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