Gesture to your PC and it will obey

Soon, all you will need to do is to wave your hand in the air to operate your computer gadget. Surfing the wave of this new technology is Elliptic Labs, which has deep roots in the research community at UiO.

Haakon Bryhni, CEO of Elliptic Labs, here demonstrates a prototype of how the company’s ultrasound microphones and sensors can be mounted around a screen. Photo: Gunhild M. Haugnes

With their introduction of “touchscreens” Apple and other manufacturers of smartphones and tablet computers unleashed a revolution. However, the next generation of technology is already in the pipeline, and now you do not even have to touch the screen to operate your favourite gadget.

Windows 8 and Android

The Norwegian company Elliptic Labs has developed such a solution, based on ultrasound. Recently, the company launched its technology for PCs and tablets using Windows 8. At the large mobile phone trade fair in Barcelona this week, the technology is also being demonstrated for tablets and mobile phones that use Google’s Android system.

The 15 employees in Nydalen, Oslo and in Silicon Valley have great expectations.

CEO Haakon Bryhni tells us that Elliptic Labs is currently in dialogue with most manufacturers of laptops, tablets and smartphones to integrate the company’s technology into their products. The interest is intense, but he still cannot report any firm contracts.

Will change the use of PCs

- There are large obstacles to be overcome. But we have faith in this - very great faith. It may sound presumptuous, but this will change the way PCs are used. Natural gestures are the way of the future, he says.

Oppfinner Tobias Dahl

The inventor himself, Tobias Dahl, is also optimistic. His award-winning PhD thesis from the University of Oslo in 2002 focused largely on wireless technology. During his post‑doc period, the idea of making screens react to waves of ultrasound generated by hand gestures gradually matured.

Playing with echoes

A smart use of echoes was one of the success criteria. At the same time, Dahl and his collaborators drew on the competence that the Norwegian oil industry has accumulated in the field of sonar technology.

- Echoes are commonly regarded as troublesome noise. But we played with it, and discovered that we could make positive use of echoes, Dahl says, who collaborated with Gudbrand Eggen in developing the technology.

Birkeland Innovasjon (now Inven2), a unit that helps commercialize results from research, was established at approximately the same time that Dahl developed the technology. The start-up company Sonitrack (later Elliptic Labs) was therefore among the first to enjoy this support.

Installed in Silicon Valley

- The good thing about being a university researcher having the time and space to think outside the box and test ideas, which tends to be less easy in an enterprise, Dahl says.

Elliptic Labs has also received funding from Innovation Norway and one of the Research Council of Norway’s BIA programmes (user-governed innovation) in collaboration with the R&D institute SINTEF. Currently, Dahl is refining the company’s technology in Innovation House, owned by Innovation Norway, in Palo Alto, located in the heart of the world’s IT capital: California’s Silicon Valley.

- We are extremely grateful for the funding that the public authorities have granted us. Norway has too few investors in knowledge capital. They prefer to invest in oil and real estate. Public funding is therefore absolutely essential, since it removes some of the risk and acts as a bridge-builder, Dahl says, also claiming that Norwegian universities have a lot to learn from how Stanford University in Palo Alto teams up with the financial community.

- Here, the interaction is extremely close. It’s inspiring and instructive. It functions like a large tree with roots spreading all over the world. To us, it’s really important to be here to see the latest trends in technology, but also to be close to our customers and visible to the investors, Dahl adds.

He finds it extremely inspiring to stroll around in and be part of this environment.

- Daily Olympics

- The feedback we get is high-quality, and everything we do is critically examined, from the quality of our PowerPoint slides to aspects of our technology. It’s like competing in an Olympic decathlon every single day. The culture is completely different. In Norway we are accustomed to thinking in terms of raw materials, while here they envision the whole package. In Norway, we have our hands in the minced meat, while the Americans are making hamburgers with salad.

He is convinced that much-reported technologies such as speech recognition, eye tracking and touch-free screens will soon be coming to the stores. He believes that Elliptic Labs is well positioned.

- Yes, we’re right in the midst of it. For example, the analyst company Gartner Group has said that by 2016 people will gesture more to their gadgets than to their friends.

- Our competitors use too much power

Haakon Bryhni, who manages the company from Oslo, agrees. He claims that Elliptic Labs is clearly ahead of its competitors, whose solutions are largely based on camera technology.

- For example, the camera solution uses far more power than our ultrasound technology, he says.

Bryhni has a PhD degree in IT from the University of Oslo, and he also has a part-time position as associate professor 2 at the Institute of Information Technology – to supervise two candidates, but also to nose around and ferret out promising research projects that might be turned into start-up companies.

He is one of four partners in the investment company Nunatak, which provides money as well as know-how to new technology enterprises. In total, Nunatak has invested in nine companies, three of which have been sold.

- They share the administrative expenses and receive guidance, help with patenting and access to various resources. Now, for example, I am acting as CEO on a temporary basis for Elliptic Labs during a crucial period.

Money is pouring in

Many investors share this belief in the technology. Hence, money is no object to Elliptic Labs, which had raised NOK 55 million before the end of last year. Moreover, in early February another NOK 10 million from a cluster of British and Norwegian investors trickled into their account.

By Gunhild M. Haugnes
Published Aug. 8, 2013 1:46 PM - Last modified May 24, 2017 11:38 AM