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BW Businessworld

An Amazing Sixth Sense

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Until you actually see it in action, it's difficult to believe. Of course, it is the job of MIT Media Lab to come up with brilliantly practical technologies, but what Pranav Mistry, an Indian PhD student at MIT, has been working on there for the past eight years is nothing short of genius.

What impresses me every bit as much as the technology itself is the thinking behind it — thinking that attempts to bring the digital and real worlds where they belong: together. All too often, products and technologies have been created that work in a sort of parallel universe to the one we live and think in. They work on the flipside, not together. Computing is a prime example. It is entirely unnatural for us to be chained to a computer every moment that we need to work, play, read, look for information or communicate with someone. Yet that's what is happening. The computing devices may get smaller and more portable, but they remain a distinct entity that we must reach out for when we need digital assistance for use in the real world.

‘SixthSense' technology takes a different approach to computing and tries to make the digital aspect of our lives more intuitive, interactive and, above all, more natural. You shouldn't have to think about it separately. You shouldn't have to switch mentally and physically back and forth between the digital and the natural. With a gesture of the hand and eventually just by doing what you're doing, digital information should become available to you.

Young Mistry demonstrated how a SixthSense prototype worked, at the TED Talks held in early November at Mysore. TED, which stands for Technology Entertainment Design, the three worlds the platform tries to bring together, is a private non-profit academic organisation focused on "ideas worth spreading". It is a top-level forum where the greatest minds come and talk about new ideas in their respective fields. Until very recently, it was only held in California, and India is one of the first few countries outside of the US to have been able to host these fantastic talks. I highly recommend catching these talks, available online at ted.com.

But back to SixthSense. It's a lot of complex technology squeezed into a simple portable device that can be worn as a pendant around the neck. It involves a camera, a mirror and a mini projector coupled with a mobile phone to connect to the internet. A little thing, and yet it could change the way we use technology in everyday life. The device recognises and can track through computer vision-based techniques, gestures, pictures, text and colours capping your fingers. This means that you can indicate what you want by using natural hand movements. For example, you can make a camera frame move with your fingers to take an actual photo. You can walk up to a wall and project your photos, edit them and e-mail them — again, through gestures. You can tell the time by drawing a circle on your wrist with your fingers. Or, make a phone call using numbers projected on your palm.

When you bring in connectivity, you can get instant, relevant visual information projected on any object you pick up or interact with. So, pick up a box of cereal and your device will project whether it suits your preferences. Pick up a book and you can get reviews and ratings. You can meet someone and see a cloud of tags appear on the person's clothes. In the world of work, the application is infinite. You could modify and print a chart by tapping it. It's much like you'd do with your iPhone or a touch screen device, except there's no surface and you could gesture in the air or choose a surface to become a screen.

Mistry, in a video of the demo that you will find easily online, says that years ago he began his exploration into SixthSense after taking apart a few mice (the digital kind) and attaching their rollers together. Perhaps a cue to parents to let children break open an object now and then.

The world is immensely excited about the potential of SixthSense. Freed from the shackles of having to get information from a fixed location, the possibilities are endless. Those working with the physically challenged are wondering if it's possible to use SixthSense as a fifth sense.

The device or devices would cost very little, when the technology moves on to the commercial stage. Both the hardware and the software are open for individuals and companies to build upon and begin putting to use. The software, in fact, will be open source and available in a matter of weeks.

Just how long SixthSense technology and devices will take to reach us and in what form, is not clear. But when they do, we can look forward to technology being more human.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services. [email protected], @malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 07-12-2009)