How Gesture Control Could Transform Video Games

hand gestures, remote control
Will gesturing in the air supplant remote controls and other handheld devices? One group of experts talked about the future of motion control at an interactive technologies conference, SIGGRAPH. (Image credit: Rommel Canlas |

LOS ANGELES — Gaming has been looking a little different lately. People are punching in the air at their TVs and tilting their tablets back and forth during their morning bus commute. They're playing motion-controlled game systems, which use depth cameras, accelerometers and other sensors to detect movements beyond the button-pushing that traditional video game controllers require.

Some researchers here at SIGGRAPH, a conference about interactive technologies hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery, think such motion-controlled systems are the future of gaming and other industries, too, offering a more intuitive way to play games, learn certain skills and more. "I think 10 years from now, it's going to seem antique to have a game that doesn't have some kind of natural user control, whether it's voice or motion," said Joseph LaViola, a computer scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. [Beyond the Touch Screen: The Future of Computer Control]

At the conference Aug. 5, LaViola and four other motion control researchers offered a glimpse of what that future might look like. They looked at several ways the field may grow, what still needs to improve and whether motion control will one day supplant handheld devices.

A new kind of game

The best days for motion control may still be ahead. Motion control may work best with entirely new technologies that aren't necessarily like the video games of today, two panelists said.

Motion control may find its way into the TVs, computers and other control screens of the future, said one panelist, Keith Steury, a psychologist who leads game design research at Microsoft Game Studios. The technology will be especially helpful for controlling 3D interfaces and "television screens the size of an entire wall in your home," he said. With such screens, a remote control might feel too small and limited, he explained.

Meanwhile, the best video games will be designed with the technology in mind, said Richard Marks, senior scientist in Sony's video game research and development department. Simply adding motion control to existing games that were made for traditional controllers doesn't work as well, he said.

Steury agreed. "I think the content that will take off is content that comes from a very different direction," he said.

Beyond gaming

While many of the audience members at the SIGGRAPH panel were gaming enthusiasts, even those less attuned to the video gaming world may see motion control in their schools, workplaces or doctor's offices. LaViola studies video games for training soldiers and teaching physics. One audience member said he develops motion control programs for physical therapists to use with their patients.

Whether entertainment, healthcare, the military or another industry will develop motion control the fastest depends on which industry is able to see the biggest potential profits, Steury and Brian Murphy, design lead at Microsoft Game Studios, said in response to a question from InnovationNewsDaily.

The motion-sensing device Kinect has shown Microsoft that there's money to be made in gaming. "So the investment there is obvious," Murphy said.

At the same time, specialty applications can charge their customers much more than Sony or Microsoft can charge people who buy video games, Steury said. A hospital may be willing to pay thousands of dollars for a motion-controlled physical therapy aid, for example, he said. So specialty companies' motion control technology may be several years ahead of the gaming industry's technology.

What needs to improve

The motion-detecting controllers of today aren't quite ready for that future yet, however. The Microsoft Kinect, Sony Playstation Move, Nintendo Wii and other motion-controlled systems are still less accurate and have a longer lag time than systems that use traditional controllers. [Motion Gaming Review: Kinect vs. Nintendo Wii vs. PlayStation]

Panelist Amir Rubin, CEO of Sixense Entertainment, talked about the technical specs that motion control still needs to improve on. Motion controllers should work without a calibrating step, he said, and they should be able to detect several people in a wide area in front of the TV screen, so people can move around without worrying about leaving the "sight" of the controller. They should also be more precise, work without lag and be easy for developers to write games for, he said.

Such improvements may help spread motion controllers among more hardcore gamers, LaViola said. Motion control games have come under fire from some more dedicated video game fans, including Stephen Totilo, editor-in-chief of the gaming news website Kotaku. In July, Totilo published an editorial arguing that the best video games still use traditional controllers. Because people can't control their movements in a video game as precisely using motion control, the technology might be best for young kids and for friends playing together at a party, who might be a little intoxicated, he wrote.

"Maybe in five years, we'll be able to see some of these motion-controlled games be more applicable and more appropriate for the hardcore gaming market," LaViola said.

The end of the button?

As motion control improves, will future games eschew handheld controllers entirely in favor of jumping, pointing and arm-flapping? "I don't think that's the right question, really," Marks said. Instead, he said, people should think about what kind of games they're making.

While some games will work well when entirely motion-controlled, others might benefit from a handheld device, he said. It might be fun to hold a plastic sword during a sword-fighting game, for example, or a baton that appears to be magic wand on-screen. "A magic wand feels good to hold in your hand," he said.

Steury thinks some technologies we have today may also have arrived at the best way to do what they do. For the TV screens of today, for example, he thinks the traditional remote control works well and won't be supplanted by simply pointing a finger.

Rubin disagreed, believing that motion control will replace traditional TV remotes. "It's the most natural evolution of things," he said.

Whether or not motion control is the future for every device, most of the panelists expect it to have an increasing role in their industry in the next five years. "It'll be a seamless part of what we do," Marks said.

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily staff writer Francie Diep on Twitter @franciediep. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

InnovationNewsDaily Staff Writer