An emerging trend in technology this year is -- in the immortal words of television show "Arrested Development" -- "No Touching!"
Yes, a growing number of technology companies seem to be hard at work inventing new ways for us to control our smartphones, tablets, laptops and televisions without having to touch them at all. We're not talking about voice control, like the imaginative Siri app on Apple's iPhone 4S; we're talking about gesture control, the ability of a gadget to "watch" your movements and manipulate the on-screen content based on the motions you make.
Companies large (Microsoft, Sony) and small (Flutter.io, Mark's Think Tank) are innovating in this arena, and the results thus far have dazzled and given great hope for a touchless future.
Below, we've gathered nine of the coolest, most innovative, impressive, downright magical gesture-control technologies that you can either buy or try right now. It's a hodgepodge -- including free smartphone apps that you can download today, and an incredible next-generation arcade game that will run you into the five figures -- but all of them are united by a common thread: The ability to manipulate a gadget's screen without touching the gadget itself and to make your mouth hang open.
In every case, regardless of price, the reaction, I think, should be awe: This is the stuff of sci-fi and concept videos, and you can try it all for yourself. Click through the slideshow (probably with that -- giggle -- computer mouse of yours) and try one of these touchless control applications yourself. Hope your floor is clean, because your jaw's about to smack it:
Flutter is a free app for Mac that allows you to control iTunes and Spotify by waving your hand in front of your laptop's webcam. Functionality is limited for this free, newly launched app right now -- you can only pause and play at this point, by holding your palm up in front of your camera -- but <a href="http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2012/03/look-ma-no-trackpad/" target="_hplink">more features are apparently coming</a>, per <em>Wired</em>. And even if it's just pause/play, it's still a cool feeling, stopping and starting your computer's music by just lifting your hand. Mac users <a href="https://flutter.io/" target="_hplink">can download and try out Flutter here</a>; you can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/27/flutter-app-control-itunes-spotify-webcam-gesture_n_1382663.html" target="_hplink">read more about Flutter here</a>.
Controlling your gadget's music player isn't just for Apple users: Wave Control allows you to pause, play and change songs on your Android smartphone by performing simple gestures in front of your phone's sensor (usually next to your phone's forward-facing webcam). You can wave your hand once over the sensor to go to the next song or twice to go to the previous song; show the sensor your palm to pause or play. With the latest update, there are also options to control volume or turn your phone's notifications to silent, all without touching the device. Wave Control works with almost any music or movie player available for Android devices, including Google Music, Spotify and Winamp. It's a fun little utility, and could be especially useful if you use your phone in the car or in the kitchen when your hands are dirty. Mostly, though, it's all about the 'Wow' factor with this one -- "You can do <em>what</em> by flicking your fingers over your smartphone's screen?" You can <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.MarksThinkTank.WaveControl" target="_hplink">download Wave Control for your Android phone in the Google Play Store</a>; read more <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/wave-control-for-android_n_1440305.html" target="_hplink">about Wave Control on HuffPost (here)</a>.
Controlling your music without your hands is neat-o, but how about controlling your television? Forget about remote controls: You ARE the remote control with two newer products we'll highlight here. First, you probably know the Xbox 360 with Kinect as a popular video-gaming console. The major selling point of the Kinect is that it comes with a sophisticated, intelligent sensor bar that sits atop your television set and can track your every movement, allowing you to play motion-based games on the Xbox and control your character's body by moving your own. It's fun, futuristic, sweaty gameplay for your living room. Now, recent updates to the Xbox allow you to control not just a video game character, but also the content on your television screen, just by waving your hands from the comfort of your La-Z-Boy, no sweating involved. (Unless, I suppose, you are a really sweaty person; in which case, you might sweat). The Xbox 360 features several home entertainment options, including apps for Netflix, HBO, and MLB.tv, all of which can be gesture-controlled; it also has a download store for pay-per-view movies and television shows, fully searchable and controllable using nothing but voice and hand control. (Watch the video above for a nifty walkthrough). With the Xbox 360 with Kinect, you can swipe through the Hulu catalogue, browse through the day's baseball games, and scan YouTube music videos all by flicking your wrist around. Prices for the Xbox with Kinect vary, but <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Xbox-360-4GB-Console-Kinect/dp/B003O6EE4U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335461634&sr=8-1" target="_hplink">you can nab a used one for under $200 on Amazon</a> if you've got the urge to lose your remote control in the couch cushions forever.
If you want to gesture-control your television without the need for a big black sensor and gaming console clogging up your entertainment center, perhaps the Samsung Smart TV is more your style. The Smart TV is a lot like the Xbox 360 with Kinect, except it's just the TV, no gaming console, no sensor: It allows you to change channels and search and launch your favorite apps (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) using either hand gestures or voice controls, with all of the recognition-tech housed in the television itself. The television's camera also has face recognition, so you can set up individual viewing profiles and parental controls for everyone in your family. Alternatively, you can set up your roommate with the stricest parental restrictions possible and ensure that he's not watching anything naughty. ;) Check out the video above for a demo of the Smart TV. A <a href="http://www.samsung.com/us/video/tvs/UN55ES8000FXZA-buy" target="_hplink">55'' inch model costs about $3500</a>.
Fuego's River Adventure bills itself as the "first ever hands free, motion-controlled game for the iPad," and that's an apt description: The iPad's front-facing camera tracks your movements and transforms those movements into the movements of your character. It's a simple game -- you're traveling down a river, and you have to avoid a series of traps and obstacles by moving left and right, jumping, and running -- but it is a hint at what could be possible in gaming on tablets of the future. It also gives me hope that, one day, we'll have an iOS game based on Deliverance. You can download Fuego's River Adventure for the iPad <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/fuegos-river-adventure/id478994144?mt=8" target="_hplink">here in the iTunes store</a>.
Sony is launching several redesigned smartphones with the Xperia name this year in an attempt to compete with Apple, Samsung, and the Big Kid Handset Makers. One of the coolest features we've seen -- and perhaps a key differentiator for Sony -- is something called "floating touch," which will be debuting with the Xperia Sola soon. With floating touch, you're essentially using your finger like a mouse cursor on your phone's display, hovering your pointer finger over the screen and pre-highlighting links and icons before you actually touch them to launch. Fun stuff, but the next step for Sony is to figure out a way to actually launch links and apps without having to touch the screen. For now, though, there's not another smartphone doing this; Sony appears to have a solid headstart in the touchless-smartphone-control department (for whatever that's worth). The Xperia Sola will initially only be available in the United Kingdom and China. A Sony spokesperson declined to comment on whether or not floating touch would make its way to the Xperia phones coming to America later this year, but we have our fingers crossed. You can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/sony-xperia-sola-floating-touch_n_1342412.html" target="_hplink">read more about the Sony Xperia sola on HuffPost here</a>.
Waze is a popular GPS and turn-by-turn direction app, perhaps best-loved for its user-submitted, real-time accident reports -- drivers warning fellow drivers about upcoming traffic. That means if I'm driving through the Holland Tunnel, and I see that it's closed because it's filled with lava or something, I can report ""HOLLAND TUNNEL FILLED WITH HOT LAVA," and drivers who were going to take the Holland Tunnel will know to take the Lincoln Tunnel or the GW Bridge. Smart, right? Not smart? Asking drivers to input this stuff on their smartphones while driving. See, in late 2011, the company realized it had a problem: Solo drivers couldn't really look away from the road in order to input an accident report on their smartphones, lest they become an accident report themselves. Thanks to a recent Waze update, however, you no longer have to touch your phone in order to enter traffic reports. Using the phone's sensor (on Android or iPhone), you can simply wave your hand over Waze to activate voice control; you can then speak into your smartphone and tell Waze what the trouble is. No need to avert your eyes from the road, which is good news for fellow drivers. Waze is a free app for the <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/waze-social-gps-traffic/id323229106?mt=8" target="_hplink">iPhone</a> and <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.waze#?t=W251bGwsMSwxLDIxMiwiY29tLndhemUiXQ.." target="_hplink">Android</a>; you can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/08/waze-free-gps-driving-app_n_1263724.html" target="_hplink">read more about Waze and its touchless control on HuffPost here</a>.
We first saw Microvision's PicoMagic Projector at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January and were excited by what it could mean for both the future of business presentations and -- because we are immature -- the future of gaming. The PicoMagic Projector can turn a projection of any display -- whether it's a projection of your smartphone's display, your tablet's display, or your laptop's display -- into a touchscreen. In the video above, you'll see what that means: The PicoMagic Projector is projecting the contents of a desktop computer onto the wall -- in this case, the computer is running an airplane shooter game -- and the demonstrator is playing the game and controlling his plane by moving his hand in front of the projection. He's about 5 feet from the actual computer, not even facing the monitor, and he's manipulating what's happening on the screen just by waving his hand in front of a projector. Imagine if you could do this with any projection, on any surface, from any machine? Microvision is mostly pitching this as a boon for presentations -- no more having to ask a bored helper to press "Next Slide" on the PowerPoint -- but imagine how much fun it would be to play Angry Birds projected large on a blank wall! Super fun BIRD FLINGING ACTION! For ordering information, you can <a href="http://www.microvision.com/pico_projector_displays/index.html" target="_hplink">visit the MicroVision website</a>. Hopefully this technology finds its way into consumer products some time soon. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/11/microvision-picomagic_n_1198305.html" target="_hplink">Read more about the PicoMagic projector on HuffPost here</a>.
Forget hand-control -- Tobii is all about eye-control. Can <em>MIND CONTROL</em> be far away? Tobii has two notable products: The first, Tobii Gaze for Windows 8, allows you to control your Windows 8 operating system just by looking at where you want to go on the screen. Look down and the screen scrolls down; look left and the screen swipes left. Look at the app you want to launch and press the touchpad and that app launches. (<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/05/windows-8-gaze-interface-tobii_n_1186100.html" target="_hplink">Here's a good video explaining</a> how it works. I would also add that eye-control could be a huge boon for those with physical disabilities in their arms or hands). Tobii's other major product -- though perhaps not as, uh, utilitarian as WIndows control -- is the sweet arcade game above, which the company calls "EyeAsteroids." It is exactly what you think it is: The classic arcade game Asteroids, in which you look at the asteroid you want to explode in order to blow it up. I've played it: It's insanely fun and sort of trippy. Standing in front of the machine, you feel like you're just observing a game being played by someone else, because you aren't touching anything; and then, suddenly, you realize that these asteroids on the screen before you are exploding because <em>you're looking at them</em>, and you are jolted back to the magic of the game. Want to try it out? That'll be <a href="http://www.tobii.com/en/eye-tracking-integration/global/products-services/hardware/eye-controlled-game-tobii-eyeasteroids/" target="_hplink">about $15,000 for an arcade game</a> for your own home. All of this eye-tracking technology is traveling around, however, so you can pop on in to your local trade show to try it out; or if that's not convenient, Windows 8 Eye-Control looks like it's going to make its way to the market either this year or next. Seriously: Can mind control be far behind?