Intel's 3D camera division has been radio silent for a few months now. We were starting to get worried we wouldn't get the smarter, depth-sensing laptops and all-in-ones we were promised. But today we saw life! Today I got hands-on with the new RealSense cameras that will help your laptop see you better than ever before.
RealSense has been in development for the last few years. It was first unveiled at Computex two years ago as a way to unlock computers with your face and do better video-conferencing.
The RealSense group inside Intel has been working on all sorts of practical applications for the 3D cameras it announced back in 2014.
The vision was simple: make dumb cameras in your laptop and phone smarter. Two years later, the chip-maker has finally got it off the ground, now we're hurtling towards the Minority Report-esque future it pledged to deliver.
"Sit down here," said Anil Nanduri, director of solutions and products inside Intel's Perceptual Computing division. I'm ushered in front of a program Intel has made called 3Dme. Basically it takes a scan of your face in 3D and plasters your likeness onto an avatar.
That avatar can then be jammed into all sorts of outfits and scenes for you to share with your friends.
First, I was turned into a ginger Ghostbuster. Because I ain't afraid of no ghosts.
Second, I became a princess in my own glorious kingdom. I am a benevolent monarch with a love of birds and pink.
Intel has captured this data and will let me buy these models as a 3D printed figurine of myself in that particular outfit.
These seem trivial, but in fact they're a proof of concept for far more advanced applications. It takes you less than 30 seconds to scan a basic 3D avatar into the system, and from there it can be animated in a whole mess of different ways. Technology like RealSense mans that role-playing games such as Mass Effect could see you model characters on your exact 3D likeness and play them in the universe.
Outside of games, Intel could attach a depth-sensing RealSense camera to a robot to help it navigate through tight spaces, or you could attach it to a drone to stop it bumping into stuff.
Or you can use it to measure from one point to another in your house and store that measurement on your RealSense-enabled phablet to see if that new rug will really fit in your living room from the store.
It has practical applications in business, too. Intel showed off an app that lets a user scan a bunch of boxes with the RealSense camera, which then gives you the dimensions in milliseconds. You then tell the program how many of each box you have, and the space you need to fit it in. Say a moving truck or a shipping warehouse, for example. From there, the software computes and visualises exactly how you can pack those boxes for maximum efficiency.
These aren't moonshots anymore. They're all projects Intel is working on right now.
Developers will also start working on their own RealSense ideas, too. Right now there are 25 different PCs, laptops and tablets shipping with RealSense support, with more coming later on in the year.
By bundling RealSense-enabled cameras into their laptops, manufacturers are gearing themselves up for 3D biometric face recognition on Windows 10 when it comes out in a few months.
"2D face recognition is easy to spoof," Anil explains, adding that 3D face recognition is more secure. By adding another dimension of security for the camera to scan, it makes it harder for someone to just hold up a photo of your face in front of your laptop for it to unlock. Hackers (read: your mates wanting to stalk your Facebook) will have to try a lot harder than that with 3D cameras.
Intel has also managed to include a RealSense camera inside a 6-inch Android smartphone to make the dream of mobile depth-sensing cameras a reality. On the right-hand side of the Intel reference device is a rubberised edge. That's the top of the RealSense module. Flip the phone over and you find that it's a long black bar holding two depth-sensing cameras as well as a 13-megapixel shooter for your other images.
It doesn't take that much battery power to use, either. Anil tells me that the two depth-sensing RealSense VGA camera modules and the chip combining them into a 3D image the phone can understand only take 1 Watt of power. It's a slight bump compared to a traditional, high-resolution camera which uses around 400 Milliwats of power while recording video at 60 frames per second, but nowhere near as high as it could have been.
There are a few limitations to this phablet, however. Intel lines the right hand side of the phone with the RealSense module, mostly because it can't make the array any smaller just yet. That means you can only use your camera in landscape mode rather than in portrait.
It also means you need an enormous phone. Anil said that right now the RealSense module won't fit in anything under six inches, which rules out most of the smartphones on the market.
So right now, this is something for laptops, but Intel is working on making the 3D, depth-sensing future mobile as fast as it can. Until then, I'll be watching over my kingdom.
Luke Hopewell travelled to Computex 2015 as a guest of Intel Australia.