Intel's mood-capturing 3D camera will be in tablets early next year

A new 3D webcam for mobile devices from Intel that can assess facial expressions is slated to appear in some tablets early next year.

Intel’s depth-sensing RealSense 3D cameras will first go into Windows and Android tablets starting in the first quarter next year, said Achin Bhowmik, general manager and chief technology officer of perceptual computing at Intel. It will reach smartphones thereafter, though no specific date was provided.

The mobile camera technology is derived from similar 3D cameras that will be in PCs starting late this year. Such cameras, combined with touch and voice recognition, will improve human interaction with tablets, Bhowmik said.

A handful of tablets already have 3D cameras, but Intel wants its camera to do more than capture images. Intel’s RealSense 3D tablet cameras will determine whether a person is happy or sad based on its analysis of a face. The RealSense camera chip has technology to recognize a face, analyze the shape of lips, eyes and cheeks, and then draw conclusions about facial expression.

The camera can also make video chats more entertaining: it will be able to extract faces and bodies and superimpose them in other backgrounds, much as video-makers do with green screens. Intel has struck a deal with Microsoft so Skype users with RealSense cameras can cut all the background during a video chat, leaving only a person’s body in view. Intel has reached a similar deal with Tencent, which has 800 million users for its chat service.

The camera can also determine size, distance, dimensions, color, contours and other characteristics of objects through infrared and other sensors. Tablets will be able to scan 3D objects that could be reproduced on 3D printers or inserted into games.

Intel showed a prototype tablet made by Gigabyte with the 3D camera at the Intel Future Showcase in New York this week. The tablet was able to recognize hand gestures which then manifested in a game to pick up objects. The implementation was slow and crude, but the technology is just evolving and more software has to be developed, Bhowmik said.

Another plan is to use the 3D cameras to make children’s books read via tablet more fun and interactive. Through video, gesture and voice feedback, a tablet will be able to assess a child’s involvement level with ebooks and augment the experience by slowing down or starting games. Intel earlier this month announced a tie-up with Scholastic to develop interactive features using the 3D cameras.

The camera was developed as part of Intel’s “perceptual computing” effort to make human interaction with computers more natural and interactive. The camera chip is 3.5-mm thick and will be built into the bezel of tablets. The chip has its own image co-processor to analyze video and 3D data points, and processing loads will not be offloaded to CPUs or graphics cores.

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