Last year, software developers from QNX demonstrated their beta test of Leap Motion gesture control UI for the BlackBerry 10 car software. QNX announced that it intends to be the first to introduce touchless infotainment systems at the Blackberry Live 2013 conference. Those days are still few years away, but they are coming fast. The question is: Are we ready for touchless cars?
Leap Motion has been improving its vanishing interfaces for years, but only for PCs. The first touch free controllers for tablets will go on sale later this year. The connected car market is one of their ultimate goals.
The next generation of Leap Motion software tracks not just fingers, but the entire skeletal structure of the hand. That allows the system to understand where fingers are placed even when they are partially obscured. This more robust gesture tracking and prediction software will allow the company to enter markets where safety is a critical issue, such as in heads up displays in cars.
As of February of this year, 38 car models were available with standard or optional heads up displays. These are designed to project information on the windshield so drivers can keep their eyes on the road. Heads up displays are better than dash displays for offering directional advice, personalized functions and news/entertainment controls. The next hurdle is that drivers still need to take their hands off the wheel and touch a knob or issue voice commands, both of which have their own problems.
A hands-free gesture reader is certainly possible and seems to have a built-in market, as long as it can meet safety and confidence expectations. Michael Buckwald, CEO of Leap Motion, offered three use cases where he sees great potential for Leap Motion in cars in the near future:
Backseat Driver: The first and easiest deployment would be for someone in the rear seat controlling his or her own entertainment system by gesture only.
Virtual Dials: The second is an option that QNX is currently exploring. Drivers are already controlling volume, station and other info with their voices, sometimes with disappointing or hilarious results. The gesture-reading must be much more reliable to prevent accidental road rage.
Heads Up: The third possible use is the one that Leap Motion is most excited about in the long run. Combined with a rich heads up display, the software would allow drivers to make their intentions known without taking their hands off the wheel. Finger movements would be enough to communicate a great range of operational controls. With this set-up, a driver could launch a GPS direction search and have the route overlaid on the actual road with other important route information like delays and road work. The connected cars of the very near future will be able to communicate with surrounding stores or home appliances. To process all that new data, cars will require an easier interface than a dashboard full of buttons and dials.
There is no question that the current UI choices are going away as processors get better at crunching numbers and predicting behavior. Although Leap Motion has had some difficult quarters recently that disappointed industry analysts, the company is aggressively entering Japan and China to make up for lost time. Cars are definitely moving toward gesture-reading, no matter who gets there first. The writing may not be on the wall, after all. It could just be projected onto thin air.