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Israeli startup aims to bring virtual reality into our homes

Posted By Nicky Blackburn On September 4, 2007 @ 11:21 pm In | No Comments

Dor Givon ducks and weaves, and the animated figure on his computer mimics the movements, narrowly missing a right hook, and then landing a good solid punch on his opponent’s face. There’s a smack, as the blow makes impact and Givon turns, adjusts the small web camera attached to his laptop, and says: “It’s as simple as that. The camera tracks my every move.”

This is XTR – Extreme Reality, a south Tel Aviv startup that has developed a technology that allows a user’s three-dimensional body movements to be translated onto the computer in real time. When you run, so does the animated character in the game. When you throw a punch, or mimic the moves of tennis, the computer character does the same.

While many game developers are moving rapidly into this field, what makes XTR unique is that players don’t require any special hardware to play these games. All they need is an ordinary webcam – something many computer users already own – and software. ThinkMinority Report, but without the glove.

This is the first time anyone has managed to translate the movement of a person into a three-dimension space using only software and a single camera. “For years people thought it was impossible,” admits Michal Ludzki, 30, the company’s CEO. “Game developers cannot believe we have managed to create this movement with software only. When they play with it, they are amazed.”

The gaming industry is huge. It’s worth an estimated $25 billion now, and is expected to be worth $50 billion by 2009. One of the hottest trends is three dimensional user movement. In recent years there has been a move away from computer games that encourage children to sit still for long periods of time – thought to be a cause of childhood obesity – to those that require movement. Today there are dance mats and boxing games.

“People don’t want their children to be coach potatoes anymore,” Ludzki told ISRAEL21c. “This is a huge market and it’s growing fast.”

There are many methods to translate a player’s movements to the computer, but all of them require some kind of specialized hardware. Some companies use colored patches, or sensors attached to the player’s hands. These broadcast information on the player’s position in 3D space to the computer. Other alternatives include special cameras which emit infrared signals and record the echo as the signals hit the body.

The most popular game on the market is Nintendo’s Wii console. Players hold a remote control that emits a signal to the computer about the their location and movements in 3D space. The computer senses the location of the remote control, and responds. Games offered are fairly simple, like boxing or tennis. Ludzki says that according to The Economist, Nintendo’s Wii will be in one third of homes in the US by 2009. “It’s a huge success,” says Ludzki.

“The Nintendo Wii can only be played with the remote control in your hand. The game judges your position in front of the TV by the location of the remote control,” says Givon, the 36-year-old company’s founder and CTO. “In contrast, XTR turns the player into a virtual joy stick. Your figure inside the game moves just as you do outside of it.”

At the simplest level, XTR’s technology, which can be used on the PC, consoles, or the TV, allows game developers to create short, energetic games where users box, play tennis, move screen icons around, or take part in virtual sword fights. At the most sophisticated, however, it turns the user’s hand into a virtual remote control with the ability to activate almost anything from Windows to smart home applications. “You can just stand in front of your TV, raise your hand, and navigate the menu,” says Givon.

XTR has now completed development of its technology and plans to launch to international game developers within the next month. The company does not intend to sell to end users, but to target top international game developers and manufacturers in France, the UK, Korea, Japan and North America who will license the technology and integrate it into existing games or create new ones around it. Interest is running high and negotiations with several game developers have already begun. Ludzki, who is currently on maternity leave with her three-month-old baby, believes that the first agreement will be signed in the next three to four months.

“There’s a great deal of enthusiasm amongst game developers,” says Givon. “We are in negotiations with a few leading companies and have to take it step by step. The game industry is moving forward and the big companies are moving in. Companies are looking for an enhancement. Nintendo’s Wii has been a great success, and companies like Sony don’t really have an answer to this today.”

Givon founded XTR in 2005 and the company has been operating below the radar ever since. Givon worked previously at another start-up he founded, RVC, where he invented a three-dimensional video that can take a 360-degree picture of a scene. “Like the holodeck on Star Trek,” he explains. The technology was sold to Micoy Corporation. Ludzki, the former CEO of natural language processing company Intelligate, joined later.

Initially XTR planned to use its technology to move into the motion picture industry, but soon moved into game development instead.

Money for XTR came from a team of influential angel investors from Israel and the US, many of whom work in the entertainment industry. Until now the eight-man company has raised more than $1 million, and is now about to close a second round.

In 2006, the company received third place at the World’s Best Technology Conference in the US. “For a small company to win such an award when we were up against large VC-backed companies from all over the world was a considerable achievement,”

Aside from the gaming industry, there are many other potential applications for XTR’s technology in industries such as mobile communications and even security. “Gaming is our first venue but we are also talking to other industries,” says Givon. The company is, for instance, creating applications for the cellular industry.”

XTR is now moving into its marketing phase, after two and half years of development. “We’re warming the engine and just about to take off,” says Givon. “The ball is in our court.”

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