In 2009, while Microsoft was busy designing and marketing what would become the Kinect, [Carlos Anzola], an inventor, tinkerer, and self-ascribed geek from Bogotá, Colombia, had been working for years on a nearly identical gesture interface for the PC. His creation, the Human interface Electronic Device, or HiE-D – pronounced ‘Heidi’ - was capable of gesture recognition years before Microsoft would release the Kinect.
After developing his gesture recognition device in 2007, Microsoft showed interest in [Carlos]‘ device – going so far as to request a prototype. Microsoft suggested that he should apply for a patent on his technology. [Carlos] did just that, sending in patent applications to both the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the World Intellectual Property Organization a mere two days before the announcement of Project Natal and a full seven months before Microsoft applied for their Kinect patent.
Since the release of the Kinect, [Carlos] has been showing the HiE-D around Bogotá and has put a few videos of his technology up on Youtube, one of which can be seen below. You can also check out his Youtube channel for some great demos.
With a reputation of experience in computer video, animation, and 3D processing, [Carlos] was approached by a technophobic American dentist who wanted a faster laser scanner for 3D modeling of his patient’s teeth. [Carlos] built an improved laser scanner and was featured on Caracol Noticias, a Columbian Newscast. [Carlos] had to deal with a bit of feature creep from the technophobe dentist, because he now wanted to manipulate the models of his patient’s mouths without using a mouse. [Carlos] was hugely influenced by the Minority Report computer interface, and decided the easiest way to interface with a computer would be a gesture interface.
[Carlos] set out to build a device that would allow a person to control a computer using only gestures. His HiE-D would be a surprisingly simple but devilishly clever device. The HiE-D projects a pattern of dots, or constellation, in infrared onto the user. Infrared is invisible to the human eye, but is easily picked up by a camera onboard the HiE-D. This is how the Microsoft Kinect works, and can be seen by a video camera in nightshot mode. When the camera detects a change in this constellation, the image is processed and can identify reference points in the user’s face, hands, or even their entire body.
After hearing of the HiE-D, Microsoft courted [Carlos] and requested a prototype. He gave Microsoft a prototype of the HiE-D, and according to [Carlos], it was taken to Redmond in February of 2007 – more than two years before the announcement of Project Natal. After meeting with Microsoft two more times that year, he was told by Microsoft that a patent on his invention wouldn’t be a bad idea.
While any action on Microsoft’s part would be speculation, we will say that the Kinect is remarkably similar to the HiE-D. Both use a ‘constellation’ of infrared dots projected on the user, and both can are able to detect the ‘skeleton’ of a user for motion control. The image below, from the HiE-D patent, shows how the movement of a face can be tracked.
Today, [Carlos] is in talks with a few interested companies that would like to produce the HiE-D. He says it would sell for only $50 USD, compared to $140 for a Microsoft Kinect. The HiE-D doesn’t have a camera to capture video of a user, so playing dress up with a HiE-D would be impossible. This wouldn’t be to much of a drawback, because some of the most impressive Kinect hacks we’ve seen wouldn’t change at all with the HiE-D.
[Carlos] says he’s been in contact with a few lawyers in Boston, who believes he has a case against Microsoft for patent infringement. He’s undecided about how to proceed at this point – Microsoft does have the war chest to go after Google for Android and defend itself over its use of 3D mapping. If we were [Carlos], we’d be pretty skeptical about our chances as well.
A flurry of interest from the hacker community surrounded the Kinect before its release date – there were bounties posted to develop an open-source driver so the Kinect would operate outside the closed Xbox ecosystem. The fact that a driver was released hours after the official launch of the Kinect is a testament to the interest in gesture recognition and the Minority Report interface. At Hack A Day, it’s not unusual to see tinkerers and geeks re-imagine existing products; there have been copies of the Microsoft Surface, and an attempt to reverse engineer the Playstation Move. Most of these are reimaginings of existing ideas or devices, which makes the uniqueness of [Carlos]‘s build all the more amazing.
We’re reminded of the abilities of the anonymous home tinkerer every day. To us, “hacker” is a label of creativity, investigation, and understanding. Like [Carlos], some of us eventually stumble upon a new idea that will change how humans interact with their environment. Although [Carlos] may not get the windfall he deserves, we’re still pretty jealous of his ability to build something, alone in a small workshop, that would change how people interact with computers.