Hands down (and hands up), this is the coolest technology of the week

Imagine standing in your kitchen preparing dinner, while the TV magically turns on in the living room, the dimmer lights flicker into action, a Netflix movie queues up for your viewing pleasure and the air conditioning adjusts just so. All of that, with just a wave of the hand, a swipe of your finger or a flick of the wrist.


A screenshot from the YouTube video showing a proposed use for WiSee. (YouTube)

That’s the technological promise of new WiSee technology, a new gesture-recognition technology being developed at the University of Washington that is able to transform slight changes in the frequency of wireless signals into specific actions.

What makes WiSee technology all the more extraordinary is that it essentially repurposes existing wireless signals within your home or business—there’s no need to purchase new cameras or sensors to make it work. Your wireless-enabled devices are already communicating with each other using a part of the wireless spectrum that’s unseen and unrecognized by humans. While we may take these wireless signals for granted, they are capable of penetrating through doors and walls (which is why your wireless router in the living room can power tablets or laptops elsewhere in your house or apartment). Any time you move a hand or arm or leg, you are ever-so-slightly changing the frequency of those wireless signals – a phenomenon that the University of Washington researchers refer to as a Doppler frequency shift.

If WiSee technology ever makes it out of the lab and into the market, we may be one step closer to realizing the dreams of futurists who see gesture-controlled computing interfaces as the future of technology. We may not yet be ready for a Minority Report-like future of gesture interfaces and “infogloves,” but we’re getting there. Every month, it seems, brings a cool new gesture-recognition technology, like the MYO armband, that go beyond what’s now possible with, say, the Xbox Kinect.

Today’s gesture-recognition interfaces, though, require some mix of cameras or sensors to work. That’s one big advantage of WiSee technology: it doesn’t require cameras or sensors to capture motion in your home. All it takes, in fact, is a slight adaptation to your existing wireless router so that it can recognize up to five different people moving at the same time. As of now, according to the researchers, WiSee can recognize 9 different gestures and has a surprisingly high 94 percent recognition rate, even when multiple people are walking around a room. Think of it as “upcycling” the wireless router in your home to turn them into a powerful gesture-recognition machine.

If there is a downside to the new WiSee technology, it’s that Wi-Fi technology is notoriously easy to hack. In addition to people being able to hack your wireless password, people might also be able to hack your wireless gestures. Imagine a disgruntled neighbor having some fun at your expense by turning on and off your lights at inopportune moments. So, in addition to protecting your wireless password, you’d have to protect your gestures. For now, the easiest solution appears to be some type of control gesture—similar to the “OK, Glass” command for Google Glass—where a single identification gesture could trigger the wireless router to start recognizing your actions.

That said, new gesture-recognition technologies like WiSee are giving us the capability to do things we used to just see in cartoons or the movies. Now, just about anyone can be transported into this world of magic, in which voice commands, gestures and even thoughts are used to control the objects around us. Decades from now, we’ll look back at our current computing interfaces and wonder what took us so long to make the leap to natural interfaces, in which technology becomes a natural extension of the human body and mind.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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