It’s not much of a spoiler to say the aliens in District 9 have the snazziest trigger lock around. The Prawns, as they are known in the movie, have some strange ideas for safety, though. Their trigger lock is DNA-encoded not to keep little Prawns away from dangerous gear, but to prevent any other species from activating the weapons. (That’s the sort of detail that raises all sorts of questions about just who the Prawns were fighting that they needed this kind of security, and whether the enemy also had DNA-locked rifles.)
While the Prawns seem to have mastered DNA-detecting technology, it remains a bit beyond our reach out here in the real, human world. But that may be the next big frontier in biometrics. Because, let’s face it, the typical kinds of biometric security used in of the lairs of movie super-villains isn’t science-fiction anymore—it’s reality.
Fingerprint scan? We can do that on a laptop, or even a mere thumb drive. Palm scan? Pssh. Placing a hand on the scanner is passé. Retinal scan? Of course. Facial recognition? Voice recognition? Done and done. All of these different biometrics has been exploited by security companies trying to make money in a world where verifying authenticity is becoming an increasing problem. But the biological signature big business and national governments really want to capture is DNA. Unlike our faces and voices, it never changes. Unlike our fingerprints, it’s very difficult to fake. And except for identical twins, it’s totally unique to each individual (and it may soon be possible to distinguish even identical twins [pdf]). Because this technology would be so valuable, everyone from the Austrian national government to major corporations is toiling away (pdf) in their R&D departments to develop a DNA biometric lock.
OK, Tom Cruise’s data gloves in Minority Report are slicker than the AcceleGlove, no doubt about it. Remember him, standing all cocky and Cruise-like in front of that glass panel, watching images and data flicker before him? With precise gestures, Cruise zoomed in on images, moved them around with a flick of his wrist, and dragged up new ones. With an inadvertent gesture to shake a man’s hand, he tosses a row of pictures off the side of is display. Cruise’s gloves even have lights glowing on each fingertip.
The Acceleglove is clunky and ungraceful by comparison. The cloth is thick, because it has to conceal circuitry, and long metal rods reach from the wrist up past the elbow to capture arm motion. (Former DISCOVER columnist Jaron Lanier pointed out that one problem with the interface that Minority Report made famous was that it caused a lot of arm fatigue; presumably, the metal rods will not improve that situation.) Sometimes warts emerge when a sci-fi device becomes real.
Earlier versions of the data glove have been around for years in the form of motion-capture suits or virtual-reality gloves (and, of course, the old-school Nintendo Power Glove). Fifth Dimension, a leader in virtual-reality equipment, has gloves that run from $2,000 to $40,000 for a top-of-the-line, 21-sensor, wireless pair. But those prices have limited it to high-end markets, like mainstream motion pictures and TV commercials.
The Acceleglove, which will come in at about $500, uses an accelerometer in each finger to measure its position. These devices measures use tiny crystals to measure changes in the finger’s orientation with respect to gravity, the force that puts the “accele” in accelerometer. (Accelerometers tell iPhones when to switch between portrait and landscape mode, and they’re used in laptops to turn off the hard drive the poor thing is dropped.) As a finger of the glove moves, the crystals’ charge changes, indicating the finger’s location and orientation to a computer. The accelerometers transmit the data to a circuit board at the back of the hand, which in turn uses a USB cable to link to a computer. (Here’s a demo video.)
Applications for the Acceleglove are still under development, but there are some pretty nifty ideas out there. Researchers at George Washington University (where the glove was first developed) hope to use the glove to allow speakers of sign language to translate their signs directly into text on a computer screen, or even into speech. The military, naturally, wants to use the gloves for fine control of unmanned drones, and games makers see incredible new forms of entertainment entertainment.
The AcceleGlove is also easily capable of manipulating images on a screen, like a mouse, and it hardly seams a stretch to imagine that one day we too will be able to say, Scotty-style, “Keyboard. How quaint.”