In 1983, a pair of Toronto inventors had an idea that would revolutionize the way we interact with computers. It only took the rest of the world 25 years to catch on.
Nineteen eighty-three was a great year for dancing. During a Motown anniversary special, a rhinestone-gloved Michael Jackson introduced the world to the moonwalk. The movie Flashdance grossed over $100 million at the box office and started a fashion craze for leg warmers. The television program Fame racked up Emmys and Golden Globes while making a star out of a hard-assed dance instructor played by Debbie Allen. And on a dancefloor in Waterloo, Ontario, a psychotherapy student named Vincent John Vincent had a flash of insight that would eventually change the way the world interacts with machines.
“I was dancing to music, and I was hearing music in my head and wanted to express it in my dance,” he says, almost three decades later, demonstrating by stabbing his arms in the air to his left and right. “I started cutting the beams of light that were coming down onto the dancefloor.”
Right there, letting the music on the stereo marry with the music in his head through the movement of his limbs amid the sweat of the discotheque, Vincent had a vision of a technology that would allow his body’s movements to change the music. “I thought, you know, if there was something that could track a dancer’s movement while they were dancing, then they could add to the music. It would change the relationship so that you weren’t just dancing to the music, but creating part of the music while you were dancing. That was the impetus to develop that technology.”
Vincent shared his revelation with computing student and fellow dancer Francis MacDougall, who responded by saying, “Let’s do this.” Very quickly, they realized that a technology that would allow body gestures to control sounds could allow body gestures to control computers in any number of ways. This is how the future gets made.
On November 4, 2010, Microsoft released a device called the Kinect for its Xbox 360, which became the fastest-selling technology product in history. The Kinect includes a 3-D camera that connects to the game system, allowing users to play games by gesturing with their bodies—no wires, sensors or joysticks required. In its July 2011 issue, technology bible Wired claimed that the Kinect was fostering a computing revolution, and approvingly cited a Microsoft manager’s claim that the Kinect is “an early example of how we will soon interact with all of our computers and appliances.”
The Kinect is built partly on patents that Microsoft licensed in 2006 from Vincent and MacDougall and their company, GestureTek. “The fusion of GestureTek technology and the Xbox 360 will enhance the entertainment and gaming experience for our customers,” Microsoft executive Aaron Greenberg said presciently at the time. “Gesture control will further redefine entertainment.”
From their Toronto headquarters, Vincent and MacDougall have been enabling people to use gestures to control computers for more than a quarter-century, slowly attracting the attention of notable futurists—including Moses Znaimer, curators from the Smithsonian Museum and even David Bowie (who was one of their first angel investors). Just this week, the company announced the sale of its consumer products and mobile divisions to international technology giant Qualcomm, a multi billion-dollar company that Vincent says is better positioned than GestureTek is to bring consumer products to market quickly. But his company continues to be the global leader in technology that allows people to interact with computers hands-free, which has far more than just gaming applications. GestureTek’s technology is already used in education, marketing and healthcare. They imagine that, in the future, gestures could be used to control pretty much every machine we use.