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Will 'Matchpoint' Technology Kill the Remote Control?

New system lets you operate devices with a twist of a wrist or nod of the head.
Image: Woman watching TV
Newton Daly / Getty Images file

For decades, we’ve been pushing buttons to operate our devices. But that’s changing. Advances in voice recognition mean that in many cases we can simply ask our devices to read us the news or order our groceries. Soon we may be able to control computer cursors and screens of all sorts with a wave of the hand.

That’s the promise of “Matchpoint,” a new gesture-based technology that couples a webcam with software that can runs on TVs, tablets, and laptops. Matchpoint adds an interface in the corner of the screen, showing moving icons for volume, channel, etc.

This image shows targets in the corner of a TV screen. Each target rotates around its corresponding function. The user matches the rotational movement with any object, or part of their body, to create a coupling and active the control.Lancaster University U.K.

To operate a control, you simply gesture in a way that mimics the icon’s movement. For instance, you might twirl your wrist to change the channel or raise the volume by nodding your head.

If Matchpoint catches on — for now it's just a prototype — the days of digging underneath your sofa cushions to find your remote may be over. But Matchpoint’s developers see wider applications. Unlike other gesture-based technologies, which typically track hands or fingers, Matchpoint observes motion regardless of what is moving — a hand, a head, or even a salt shaker.

You can select a control by following the movement of a moving target. Once selected, you can control a pointer on the screen.Lancaster University U.K.

“The ability to use objects (and lack of constraints on the user’s posture) means that users do not have to stop their current activities to interact with the system,” Christopher Clarke, a graduate student at the University of Lancaster in England and one of Matchpoint’s developers, told NBC News MACH in an email.

That makes Matchpoint a multitasker’s dream. You can run on a treadmill and skip music tracks without fumbling with your cellphone or change TV channels while washing dishes. And if you rely on online do-it-yourself (DIY) videos to, say, learn how to cook a new dish or fix your car’s squeaky brakes, Matchpoint lets you pause, rewind, and play without having to get batter on your tablet or put down your tools.

There’s more. In an operating room, Clark said in the email, “The surgeon might need to reference a medical diagram or look at an X-ray and manipulate the image (zoom, pan, etc.), and gesture control technology means that they can do this from a distance.”

Voice control, obviously, can help in many applications, too. But Clarke points out that there are scenarios in which that’s not a good option — for instance, if there’s a lot of background noise or, conversely, if you’re working in a silent space or giving a presentation where talking with your device would be awkward.

Lancaster University researcher Christopher Clarke selects a channel to watch by using his mug as a remote control. He moves his drink left or right until finding the station he wants to watch.Lancaster University U.K.

Further down the road, specialized versions of Matchpoint technology could emerge, involving recognition of specific objects and triggered responses. For example, one might imagine a system that instantly spots the motion of a gun being raised and, in turn, activates an alarm.

Sounds like maybe the remote has met its match.