Startup touts touch-less data entry tech

Chicago (IL) - A new player has joined the quest for the ultimate data entry device. Ethertouch says it has developed a 3D sensing technology that reduces data entry on virtually any device to hand movements and finger pointing.

One may wonder why researchers spend time on looking for new data input technologies, since keyboards and touchscreens are good enough and do their job quite well in most cases. On second thought, it is quite surprising why there is not more time spent, if the annoyances of traditional keyboards are considered. Then it is quite obvious why data entry tech has a good shot at soon being considered much more seriously than it has been in the past.

Especially cellphones never have been considered as devices for "content creation", mainly because of their small screens and keyboards that offer little functionality beyond dialing phone numbers. New Jersey-based Ethertouch believes it has found a key how to make virtually any electronic device more user-friendly to navigate and allow data input in a "natural" way.

The firm’s "3-D Capacitive Sensing" consists of an Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC), sensors integrated for example in copper strips as well as conductive coating on the surface of a screen. In combination with specific software as well as a generated electric field, the technology is able to sense movements in front of the screen and translate them for example into navigation within applications.

A similar approach recently made headlines, when Hutchison Harbour Ring (HHR) released a version of its virtual keyboard : A keyboard is displayed on any surface and a 3D camera follows finger movements and recognizes when a key is intended to be pressed. The Ethertouch technology however works without a 3D camera a completely relies on its sensors and conductive screen coating. According to David Leis, vice president of marketing at Ethertouch, the technology is reliable and accurate : "We can use 10,000 counts of waypoints over any given distance and can determine movement with high accuracy."

Leis sees a variety of applications where data entry is needed but highlighted ATM machines that in future could be equipped without a keyboard and instead could be controlled simply by hand and finger movements through the air. He did not detail an exact range of the 3D sensing, but said that data entry would work well even from a distance of about four feet. "So far devices dictated what we had to do. Now the software is reacting to us," he said.

While ATMs are somewhat limited in unit counts, Ethertouch’s technology could have a much greater impact on the cellphone. The ASIC is small enough to be integrated in today’s phones and the sensors will have to get more complex, as Leis said. In terms of usability, the technology however could not only assist in moving through the menus of the phone without having to touch it, but could bring various content creation features to the mobile phone. "Right now, we can do drawings by hand and paint them on the screen. We are also working on handwriting recognition that allows users to simply write text in the air and the phone will recognize and it and write it on the screen," Leis said.

There are no specifics avaialble about the technology at this time, but the calculation of coordinates of moving elements consumes "little processing" power and power consumption of the technology is "negligible" even in cellphones, according to Ethertouch. The company currently offers an evaluation kit of the tech for about $500 and said it is in talks with banks and a large cellphone manufacturer to bring the technology to the market. Leis said a market introduction of the technology in commercial products such as cellphones is targeted for Christmas 2006.

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