Intel Heatwave cameras are hot stuff

Intel researchers have demonstrated Heatwave, a natural interface using thermal imaging cameras

Natural interfaces like Kinect are all about controlling gadgets without wires, remotes or joysticks. But many systems can't tell when they should be watching and when they should be ignoring your movements. It's also been tricky to do pressure-sensitive or multi-touch. Until now.

At the Intel Research Lab open day this week, researchers demonstrated Heatwave, a natural interface using thermal imaging cameras. The cameras pick up and track body heat of course, but that's not what they use as input. The cameras are so sensitive that they actually spot the minute amount of heat transferred from your fingers to the table when you draw a shape or swipe your fingers.

The technology works on plastic, wood, paper and table tops where friction keeps the material warm for a moment after your finger passes. It doesn't work so well on glass (too reflective) or metal surfaces (where the heat dissipates too quickly).

The benefit of Heatwave is that it can clearly distinguish between your hand hovering over the table and you actually doing something. And unlike video-based systems, it also works in pitch black conditions. Downsides? The thermal imaging cameras, used mostly for surveillance and army stuff, cost between £3000 to £4000 - although Intel boffins reckon those prices will plummet as thermal cams become popular.