The Sixth Sense

One of the reasons I never liked Botany was the need to learn all the Latin names of the plants. Somehow learning to call that beautiful red flower Hibiscus Rosa-sinensis just took away all the romance from it. Wouldn’t it be nice if by just looking at a flower or a tree, you could know the name for it? It definitely would have made Botany a whole lot simpler.


TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is one of the most interesting conferences that happen every year in the US where extraordinary people from all over the world come and share their insights and knowledge about topics which are as varied as they are interesting.


For a long time these talks were for the privileged few who attended, however quite recently, these phenomenal talks were made freely downloadable from their website and made available to the public at large. This article is based on a talk that I downloaded from the TED website featuring Pattie Maes and a mesmerizing gadget that she, her student Pranav Mistry and her team are developing. They call it the Sixth Sense. And no, it’s got nothing to do with some deep spiritual stuff or Bruce Willis, but the end product is such that I wouldn’t blame you if you said it was akin to magic.


Pranav’s Website defines this gadget/experience as “SixthSense is a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information. By using a camera and a tiny projector mounted in a pendant like wearable device, ‘SixthSense’ sees what you see and visually augments any surfaces or objects we are interacting with.”


It projects information onto surfaces, walls, and physical objects around us, and let’s interact with the projected information through natural hand gestures, arm movements, or our interaction with the object itself. ‘SixthSense’ attempts to free information from its confines by seamlessly integrating it with reality, and thus making the entire world your computer.”


Imagine being able to walk into a super market and having the ability to decide which of the different varieties of products to buy based on preset personal preferences, simply by holding the product in your hand. Or, while you are taking a stroll, you see this fantastic photo opportunity and you don’t need to fumble around for a camera, simply hold your hands up making a rectangular frame and the photo get taken… And if you want to see how the photo looks like, you can project it onto any surface… the road, a wall, even someone’s back, and zoom, resize and rotate the photo all with natural hand gestures.


You are driving to the airport and want to know your flight status and which gate you need to board from? No problem! Simply hold your boarding card up and the device will tell you if it’s delayed or on time, and which gate you need to board from! You will not ever need to wear a watch again or even carry your mobile… You just (gesture) draw a circle on your wrist and voila, you will have the time. And you can project the number pad of a phone right on the palm of your hand and use the other hand’s finger to dial a call… Much better than the iPhone!


You are in a bookshop or a computer games store and want to know what other people think about the book or game you want to buy? You don’t need to go searching for a computer, or even use google in your clunky blackberry, simply hold the book (game) up and you will get the rating as well as excerpts from reviews (which you can expand with a gesture, in case you want to read the entire thing), even notes your other friends may have made about this particular product.


You would never have to read a newspaper again, you could watch the up to date, relevant news projected right on top of the paper. And you could get a tag cloud of keywords pulled out of any individual’s blog or website while you are talking to them to know more about them and their interests.


The prototype device as it is right now, is assembled from available separate parts which together don’t cost more than USD$ 350. The cost is bound to become lower and lower as they refine it and mass-produce it, and it cannot cost more tomorrow than it would cost today.


Right now, it looks very clunky and quite heavy. Since you need to wear it around your neck, it might be quite uncomfortable to lug around. But again, it’s still very much in the research stage and as they get closer to a (possible) commercial release, they will for sure make much sleeker, lighter and cooler designs.


With this exciting technology just around the corner, the world will suddenly become more meaningful for everyone as they get relevant information about what they are looking at and interacting with right away. And maybe we will all know the Latin (and common) names of trees and flowers just by looking at them.


Khurshed Batliwala

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