Maybe I’m paranoid, but I can smell a legal battle coming in gesture control for TVs, computers, game consoles and other gadgets.

Maybe it’s because Canesta is soon to announce its 37th patent. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but innovations in user-interfaces are hot right now. Also, user interfaces for smartphones have already sparked legal disputes between Apple and Palm. Basically, Palm is using multi-touch screens — which Apple says it patented — for its upcoming Palm Pre.

San Jose, Calif.-based Canesta is one of several companies developing a camera that can see objects in three dimensions and thereby track their locations and movements. These 3-D sensors can be used for everything from controlling TVs to detecting hazards as you reverse in your car. Canesta’s sensors can capture data on its CMOS (complimentary metal oxide semiconductor) sensor chips as many as 60 times a second.

Jim Spare, chief executive of Canesta, said the core of the patents refers to “time of flight” technology, or the design of the image sensor that measures the time it takes light to travel. The patents also cover software techniques you need to deploy the 3-D cameras. In that space, Canesta faces rivals like GestureTek, Softkinetic and Mgestyk. Spare said the point of getting the patents is not to use them aggressively, but to give customers the confidence to deploy his company’s technology en masse.

“This is an emerging market at its early stages and it’s better to cooperate,” Spare said.

Canesta’s technology, which is likely to appear in TVs and computers first, can be used with new interfaces that allow viewers to control screen content (shows, games) without touching anything.

Canesta also competes with camera rivals like Prime Sense and 3DV Systems. GestureTek also has a lot of patents governing gesture controls. Spare believes that each company in the space is taking a different technology approach. But we’ll see if there is overlap, and if lawyers see a reason to pounce on patent infringement lawsuits.

GestureTek told me that they have a rich set of patents in the field of gesture control already. But two-dimensional gesture control is very different from 3-D gesture control, which is the kind of thing that Canesta has in the works.

Canesta has raised more than $58 million from Carlyle Venture Partners, Honda Motor Co., Hotung Capital Management, Korea Global IT Fund, and Venrock. It was founded in 1999. Check out our video of Canesta’s technology in action at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

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