Startups Take Gesture Control Beyond Games to Robots and More

Hands-free operation of bomb-defusing robots, sign language translation, and more surprising apps come out of the Leap Axlr8r

3 min read

Startups Take Gesture Control Beyond Games to Robots and More
Photo: Scott Hogge/Getty Images

It’s May, and May starts graduation season. For most people graduation brings to mind school commencements, but in Silicon Valley and its environs graduation season has another meaning—accelerators launching startup companies.

Last week, a new San Francisco-based accelerator, Leap Axlr8r, presented it first class of startups to potential investors. Organized by SOS Ventures and Founders Fund, Leap Axlr8r focused on one piece of hardware: the Leap Motion controller, an $80 computer peripheral that tracks movement, and, to date, is mostly used for games and entertainment. Interestingly, the company Leap Motion, while happily cooperating with the effort, had no direct investment or control. The companies that are behind the program provide funding, mentoring, and other support in return for 6 percent of the startup’s equity.

I went into last week’s Leap Axlr8r demo day with a certain amount of skepticism. With a one-product focus I feared I was just going to see some clever marketing of the Leap Motion device, or, at best, a few cool new videogames rather than any really novel technology. The first two demos proved me wrong, and several of the other nine companies launching also went way beyond my expectations.

First up was Mirror Training, with a hands-free remote control for military bomb-disarming robots. The system, tagged Anthropomorphic Augmented Robotic Controller, follows the movements of the user’s arm and hand, replacing the panel of buttons and switches military personnel typically use to control robots in the field. The Mirror Training system, CEO Liz Alessi says, is easier to use than these arrays of buttons and means bombs can be more quickly defused. Mirror Training is testing the system at Fort Benning, and expects to sell it for existing robots as a US $5000 plug-in. I tried the prototype (see video above) and it was immediately clear that it not only worked, but that with a little practice it could gain very fine control of the robot arm.

Next on the demo stage was Motion Savvy, with software that allows a tablet with a motion sensor to translate sign language in real time. Founder Ryan Hait-Campbell said the company is now doing alpha testing at two deaf universities, expects to do a public beta test in January 2015, and will launch the product in September 2015. While building the sign vocabulary is time consuming, and the software only recognizes 100 signs now—with 500 planned by year-end—the demo was magical, and the system could create an amazing bridge between deaf and hearing people.

Those two companies had hard acts to follow, but several of the other startups came up with novel—or at least interesting—applications for motion control. Diplopia has developed games that use motion control and the Oculus Rift virtual reality system to address vision problems caused by “lazy” eyes. The software adjusts brightness to improve depth perception, and forces gamers to use both eyes by presenting key images in the game only to the lazy eye. The company says that it has impressive success in retraining adults without depth perception to see in 3-D, and in the future it expects to extend its software to automatically generate prescriptions for corrective lenses. If its research holds up, this could be a huge help for adults and children with this kind of vision problem. Finally, startup Drift Coast intends to take motion control into the operating room by substituting hands-free motion control for the foot pedal system now used to control magnetically steered catheters.

The founders of Leap Axlr8r are getting ready to take applications for their next class of startups. This time, though they’ll keep their focus on the user interface. They’ll be looking at novel applications of a wide variety of input devices.

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