Researchers are developing a new technology that uses hand gestures to carry out commands on computers.

The prototype is called “Typealike,” and works through a regular laptop webcam with a simple affixed mirror. The program recognizes the user’s hands beside or near the keyboard and prompts operations based on different hand positions.

Different gestures and different combinations of gestures can be programmed to carry out a wide range of operations. This aims to make user experience faster and smoother, with less need for keyboard shortcuts or working with a mouse and trackpad. Nalin Chhibber, a recent master’s graduate from the University of Waterloo‘s Cheriton School of Computer Science, commented:

“It started with a simple idea about new ways to use a webcam. The webcam is pointed at your face, but the most interaction happening on a computer is around your hands. So we thought, what could we do if the webcam could pick up hand gestures?”

The study led to the development of a small mechanical attachment that redirects the webcam downwards towards the hands. The team then created a software program capable of understanding distinct hand gestures in variable conditions and for different users. The team used machine learning techniques to train the Typealike program. Fabrice Matulic, senior researcher at Preferred Networks Inc. and a former postdoctoral researcher at Waterloo, noted:

“It’s a neural network, so you need to show the algorithm examples of what you’re trying to detect. Some people will make gestures a little bit differently, and hands vary in size, so you have to collect a lot of data from different people with different lighting conditions.”

The team recorded a database of hand gestures with many research volunteers. Volunteers also did tests and surveys to help the team understand how to make the program as functional and versatile as possible. Daniel Vogel, an associate professor of computer science at Waterloo, said:

“We’re always setting out to make things people can easily use. People look at something like Typealike, or other new tech in the field of human-computer interaction, and they say it just makes sense. That’s what we want. We want to make technology that’s intuitive and straightforward, but sometimes to do that takes a lot of complex research and sophisticated software.”

The researchers say there are further applications for the Typealike program in virtual reality where it could eliminate the need for hand-held controllers.

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