Innovations: Who needs a joystick?

The moment Dory Zidon held up two small packs of chewing gum and instructed me to choose one for a quick game of air hockey, I knew I was in trouble.

February 5, 2010 19:17
Yaron Tanne, founder of CamSpace.

yaron tanne 311. (photo credit: Meredith Price-Levitt)


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The moment Dory Zidon held up two small packs of chewing gum and instructed me to choose one for a quick game of air hockey, I knew I was in trouble. Reluctantly, eyeing the small camera affixed to his laptop with suspicion, I settled on the spearmint.

“This is just one sample object that the camera can recognize with our CamSpace software,” explained Zidon. “Any small, colorful object can be used to replace the traditional joystick or mouse and in some cases even the Wii [Nintendo home video game console], including bottles, books, paddles... just about anything you can think of.”

A few seconds later, the two packs of gum had been recognized by the camera on the screen. After a pleasant little ding, the game of ice hockey popped up. “Video games are not my forte,” I said sheepishly, trying to figure out how to move my pack of gum in the air like a hockey stick using hand gestures that the camera could recognize.

I knew that I was supposed to swing my pack of chewing gum until the small puck on the screen in front of me made its way into the opponent’s goal, but I still failed miserably. As an added insult, I even scored against myself by sliding the puck into my own goal. Despite my personal ineptness with the world of motion games, the coolness factor was obvious. For those avid gamers who can actually come into contact with the puck on a computer screen by swinging a pack of gum in the air, the innovative CamSpace software is a huge hit. No pun intended.

Founded in 2007 by Yaron Tanne, the idea started as a project for a computer vision course at Tel Aviv University. With the help of Prof. Hezi Yeshurun, it was eventually transformed into a viable technology company today known as CamTrax Technologies. After more than a year of working from home to perfect existing public domain algorithms as well as developing new ones, Tanne was able to raise $200,000 from investors, including well-known entrepreneur and investor Igal Lichtman. In 2009, Zidon joined Tanne as director of business development and sales and successfully turned the wow factor into a profitable business.

Several important factors separate the CamTrax technology from competitors such as Prime Sense and 3DV. First, it does not require a 3D Webcam. Almost any standard Webcam (95 percent are currently supported) can track up to four objects in real time with high accuracy and reliability. Using Windows, the locking and tracking of ordinary objects in the X, Y and Z axes and angles is all automatic, so it doesn’t require any special computer knowledge or messy operating systems. Second, it runs as a pure software solution, which means that no other hardware is required. This makes it both inexpensive and extremely accessible.

“Everything is moving in this direction today. Motion games are the future,” says Zidon with conviction. If the popularity of the Wii is any indication, his statement is probably accurate. “The advantage of our software is that instead of having something that requires a console that costs anywhere between $280 and $600 with each game running between $30 and $80, all you need to use CamSpace is a simple Webcam and some everyday objects.”

Users can access and download free games on-line and play many of them right from their browser with low CPU consumption. To emulate the mouse, joystick, keyboard or other input device, you need to run an agent application locally on your computer. Once this is up, it’s possible to program different emulations depending on the game you want to control and the objects you choose for the game. Different users can also program various objects for the same game.

For example, in a racing game with a steering wheel, one person can use a small plastic ball to shift gears up and down, while the other can use a bottle to do that in the same game. According to Zidon, after many of the most popular games are emulated, CamTrax Technologies plans to provide a portal where they will be rated by popularity and then made available for download.

Aside from the wide range of possibilities within the gaming industry, including educational games for children, CamSpace has other lucrative applications in the advertising space. “We can create games in which only certain objects are recognized,” he explains, picking up a can of Coke to demonstrate his point. On the screen, a soccer ball is controlled by the Coke can, but within a few moments, Zidon switches to game in which only a Pepsi can is recognized. “The camera can recognize logos, so instead of having to spend a fortune to develop a game and brand it, we can do it quickly, easily and inexpensively.”

Aside from using bricks-and-mortar objects to play games on-line, companies can create Web sites to promote their products or have motion games developed with their logos. To coincide with the launch of its new touch screen cellphone, Samsung created a Web site operated by hand gestures using the CamSpace software.

Roi Carthy of TechCrunch, a blog about technology start-ups,  also noted that additional markets for this technology might include disabled individuals who have difficulty using traditional input devices, fitness programs that require body movements, “virtual” instruments for playing music and applications for kids that allow them to draw in the air.

The company is currently trying to raise $2 million to help expansion into foreign markets in the advertising space. Zidon also hopes to hire new developers to help with the growing number of projects on the horizon. Named as one of the 10 most promising start-ups of 2009 by Globes, the software has also received rave reviews in the blogosphere. One reviewer even went so far as calling it “the coolest thing since ice.”

While that may be an extreme description, it’s certainly worth a try. You might be surprised how entertaining it is to kick a soccer ball with only a water bottle and your hands.

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