Canesta, the Sunnyvale company that has developed a 3-D sensor, has raised $5 million from Honda over the past five years to make a product for the automotive industry.

Canesta originally tried to make a virtual keyboard — to let you type in the air on the table by detecting how your fingers moved on a keyboard image beamed from a mobile device. Its 3-D chip-set followed your finger strokes. We tried it out at the time, and it worked, but it was clunky, and the far-out effort didn’t take off in the market. At the time, the company had developed a “Plan B,” which was to develop a chip for the automotive industry.

Years later, we are seeing the fruit of this backup plan. This 3-D sensor product, in the form of tiny sensors, can be easily concealed in the bodywork, trim or cockpit of vehicles, and can tell a car how to deploy its airbags in an accident — by detecting how large or small a person is in the passenger seat for example, and adjusting the airbag impact accordingly. The sensors can also help with parking assistance, detecting pedestrians and avoiding collisions

Prices for the sensor should run between $50 and $100. But the automotive industry is heavily regulated, and the automotive product may take a couple of years to hit the market. Canesta says it has other projects in the works — for other industries — that could be marketed by the end of next year.

The company has raised more than $44 million, but was restarted in 2003, watering down its original venture capital investors considerably.

(The company sent us a copy of the Honda funding announcement yesterday; we will provide a link when we obtain one.)