Gesture Is the New Touch: A Report from the MIT $100K Competition


Most of us spend many waking hours hunched over our smartphones and tablets. We peck away on our miniature keypads, squint at our tiny screens, and pinch and flick Web pages in order to improve our view.

But what if there were a better way?

The judges of the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition think there is one, too. Just last week our startup, 3dim, won the grand prize. And this competition is no ordinary business plan competition. Since its debut in 1989, it has facilitated the birth of more than 160 companies, which today have a combined $16 billion in market cap.

Our winning offering? The first ever 3D camera software that recognizes hand gestures on mobile phones and tablets. Our invention leaves screens to do what they’re best at—which is displaying information—and enables you, the user, to interact with your phone in a smoother, more natural way (see image below). No more poking and tapping at your small smudged screen. No more straining to see the portion of the screen not blocked by your fingers. Our software tracks your hand and finger movements in an intuitive and unobtrusive way.

Our invention can be integrated into 2014 smartphone releases. Its sensors also work in wearable devices that have no touchscreens, such as Google Glass, which is primarily voice-activated. We think our technology holds a lot of promise for transforming the $150 billion global smartphone market, and making the way we work, communicate, and play much more convenient, seamless, and fun.

Our Eureka moment happened on a cold January afternoon back in 2012. We were playing around with some new technology we developed with Vivek Goyal, principal research scientist in the Research Laboratory of Electronics here at MIT. Building on the success of Microsoft Kinect, the motion-sensing device used in the Xbox 360 video game console, we created a similar tool—but one that is smaller, cheaper, and more power-efficient. We were using it to play air drums and having the best time when we thought: what if we could embed this technology in mobile phones and tablets?

But inserting equipment in a mobile device is not easy. As we honed our idea, we talked to handset manufacturers and learned that they have three big constraints when considering new technology. First, they don’t want anything that consumes a lot of power. Second, they need technology that works in all kinds of conditions. Users need to be able to access it in the pitch black, in the bright sun, indoors, outdoors, and in whatever new places they roam. And third, mobile manufacturers have a very high threshold for including new hardware on their systems. They are much more inclined to include it if it repurposes software they have already embedded. That, essentially, is your killer app.

With that in mind, we developed our technology. Games are one use of the interface, but there’s potential elsewhere too. Our camera software could be used in emerging mobile applications that enable on-the-go productivity, biometric identification, and other e-commerce functions where, say, shoppers browse items on 3D models from their mobile phones.

Winning the MIT $100K competition is validation for all of our hard work, and we stay grounded by reminding ourselves of something that Bill Aulet, managing director for the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, said. Right before the winner was announced, he told the crowd: “If you win tonight, you’re going to think that you’re great. Just remember: stay humble. The best entrepreneurs have a hungry approach to life. Tomorrow is promised to no one; use your money very wisely.”

Over the next few months we have a series of demonstrations lined up with handset manufacturers and potential customers. We also need to make a few business development hires. Specifically, we’re looking for people who know the Apples and the Oracles of the world and who have closed technology deals. We need to raise money, too. Several VCs and angel investors have already reached out, and now we need to figure out what kind of funding model we want.

One item we’ve already crossed off our to-do list: choose a headquarters. We plan to base ourselves in the Cambridge area. Here we can better take advantage of the great MIT ecosystem and network. Boston has a growing community of entrepreneurs and most everyone has been eager to help us. We literally walk into people’s offices and politely ask if we can have ten minutes of their time.

So far, no one has said no.

Andrea Colaço, a Media Arts and Sciences PhD student at MIT, is the co-founder and CEO of 3dim. Ahmed Kirmani, an MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science PhD student, is a co-founder and head of 3dim’s technology. Follow @mit100k

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