While we’ve written several times recently about the progress of next-generation, camera-based game control technologies, including the hefty funding received by Prime Sense and an earlier update on several competing companies, there’s one detail we’ve edged around: When you’ll get to use them for yourself.

That’s because most of the companies developing gesture recognition technology aren’t sure, themselves. The firms developing the 3D cameras that make motion-sensing gaming possible have to work through intermediaries to get their products to the consumer market, and in the Byzantine world of game development, no small company can predict which way giants like Sony and Electronic Arts will lean. However, a company called SoftKinetic recently stepped up to tell me that it thinks the moment may be close.

Here’s the basic idea behind 3D gaming: A camera mounted on your TV or computer captures your movements, and with a combination of sophisticated hardware and software, extrapolates them into three dimensions (the exact details vary by company). The effect is as if you had Wii controllers strapped to your body. So in a boxing game, for example, your punches, as well as the ducking and weaving of your head, will be represented in the game world; or, outside of gaming, you could control an operating system like the one in Minority Report.

The important detail in getting this to work isn’t just good cameras. There are two other, equally important factors. One is price — the average consumer won’t pay a huge amount for any controller, no matter how cool. The second is getting console makers and game developers to run with the technology.

The latter is SoftKinetic’s business. The company makes a software development kit (SDK) and API that makes the switch to gesture recognition simple for game makers. Essentially, SoftKinetic takes the data the camera is returning and translates it into straightforward commands for the gaming people. SoftKinetic has partnerships with the four major camera companies, according to CEO Michel Tombroff, and is hammering out agreements with game development companies to get the technology on the market.

Tombroff, who says his company is the only one around acting as the software intermediary between camera makers and game developers, thinks that the breakthrough will come soon, with the first cameras hitting the market within a year. Progress is going “very quickly”, he told me, before hauling me off to a demo to show off how well the technology works.

To be clear, no major games have been developed yet with gesture recognition technology. However, SoftKinetic has been working in the field for years, for military and industrial applications, and has the consumer SDK done. No game developers themselves, they’ve nonetheless cobbled together a few rough applications to show off the goods.

The demo, done using a Prime Sense camera, impressed me with how well the technology works. One quick game involved ducking and contorting into various positions to avoid oncoming obstacles, while another had me flapping my arms to control an avian character. A third was a kung-fu demo, in which I could kick around blocks and break boards (an example of that is in the embedded YouTube video, while the others are here).

Easily the best demo, though, was a modification the SoftKinetic team did for Quake 3, a game that involves running around gunning down baddies. Running and jumping were simple; for the former, I just had to lean forward, and for the latter, of course, I just hopped in place. The rest took an odd turn. To represent my gun, I had to hold my right arm out straight in front of myself. To fire, I had to flap my left arm up and down, chicken-style. Flapping my right arm switched weapons.

Outside of dancing to 80s hits, I usually try not to let myself look quite that stupid in front of other people, but the oddball motion scheme actually made playing the game more enjoyable than using a controller. Even odder than the scheme itself, though, was the fact that it felt natural within about a minute.

That demo proved the concept to me, but also illustrated where today’s technologies will converge with tomorrow’s. Even if a player could get over the ignominy of flapping their arms around to represent gunning down enemies, they would probably rather hold a controller of some sort — either a fake plastic gun, or a controller like the one the Wii has. Exactly what the end result will look like will probably depend on the game. Tombroff isn’t bothering to speculate — designers, he says, will do a far better job at creating sensible design schemes than his company can.

As long as console makers like Sony and Nintendo can provide various technologies like the Wii controller and 3D cameras cheaply enough, they’ll probably end up combining several, not least because players may not always feel like being active. “With the Wii you can play from the couch — you can fake it. Not with this,” says Tombroff. (So no, you won’t really throw away your Wii.)

Unfortunately, even with SoftKinetic acting as middle-man, it still has to hope that big companies will take up the torch and throw their support behind gesture recognition; Tombroff says he’s hammering out a deal with a major company, but the majors are infamous for canceling plans and breaking promises. Even if they do take up gesture recognition, you won’t have a suite of games by this Christmas. At first, the technology will probably show up in arcades and advergaming (think interactive screens in stores), then move into consoles and computer games.

A possible alternate scenario involves the cameras becoming small enough to fit on, or even in, desktop displays and laptop screens. Another company, 3DV Systems, has said it plans on bringing a camera to the PC accessory market by this Fall, providing a possible work-around to the console market.
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