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Hands-on: Intel's RealSense is both productive and fun

LAS VEGAS—Intel is here at CES pushing the idea that we will interact with our PCs in far easier and smarter ways in the near future. And if the company's new Kinect-like camera interface is any guide, voice and gesture interaction with PCs might indeed be just about ready for prime time.

Throughout 2014, OEMs including Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Lenovo, and NEC will begin integrating Intel's new RealSense 3D camera into their laptops. RealSense is Intel's version of Kinect for Windows, but with its own camera and microphone.

Over time, according to Mooly Eden, the senior vice president in charge of perceptual computing for Intel, the company will begin to add more products under the RealSense brand umbrella.

But for now, is RealSense just another input modality, like touch, that's going to annoy as much as it assists? Fortunately, the answer appears to be no.

Intel RealSense

Unfortunately, in RealSense's eye I look more than a little like a flesh-eating zombie. 

For one thing, the new cameras will be integrated within notebooks, tablets, and two-in-one devices, probably residing on top where your webcam is now. (I say "probably" because the demonstration models Intel used included the discrete Creative cameras Intel showed off slightly more than a year ago, and saved the integrated models for its keynote.) Eden showed off how the RealSense technology will work last summer.

RealSense will be used as a foundation for everything from augmented storybooks from Scholastic to a partnership with 3DSystems to the Nuance Dragon Digital Assistant. (A collaboration with Microsoft to strip out or adjust the background within a Skype call looked surprisingly bad, and most likely will be avoided or ignored by most users until it gets fixed.)

At Intel's booth here at the Consumer Electronics Show, the company had a number of systems available to test. Surprisingly, virtually all of the systems were loaded with Intel's own internally developed games—one of which, "Hoplites," was surprisingly addictive. It may not have been Angry Birds, but it easily rivaled some of the games I've seen in the Windows and Android app stores.

RealSense "looks" for your hands. In terms of applications, that can mean that you'll be able to swipe a screen without having to touch it (hurray!). In "Hoplites," the game looked for your hand and fingers to transport lemming-like Hoplites across and over obstacles like lava and a fire-breathing hydra. As a game, Hoplites was surprisingly fun.

And as an interface, RealSense worked just fine. I never really noticed any "dead spots" or areas in which RealSense grew confused. In general, if you stood or sat a normal distance away from the camera, RealSense would pick you up just fine.

Intel had a few other games available to play, including an odd variation on pinball, and a jetpack simulator. Unfortunately, the company didn't show off any office applications or any productivity apps.

Nevertheless, my first impressions were positive. Since Microsoft isn't pushing this (at least for now), you won't be forced to actually use camera gestures; it will be a bonus. And if laptop makers don't substantially raise prices as a result, then RealSense, in my mind, will end up being a net positive for the PC.

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