The ZCam is the first low-cost, consumer videocamera that can capture video with depth information and probably the first real challenger to Nintendo's Wiimote: with its 3D capture abilities it will allow you to play Wii-style without using any controls whatsoever. In fact, it is so precise that it will even recognize your finger gestures to fire a weapon or manipulate your computer like in Minority Report, but without gloves or any other external device:
The camera has sensors that are able to measure the depth for each of the captured pixels using a principle called Time-Of-Flight. It gets 3D information "by emitting pulses of infra-red light to all objects in the scene and sensing the reflected light from the surface of each object." The objects in the scene are then ordered in layers in the Z axis, which gives you a grayscale depth map that a game or any software application can use.
According to manufacturer 3DV Systems, the depth resolution is quite good: it can detect 3D motion and volume down to 0.4 inches, capturing at the same time full color, 1.3 megapixel video at 60 frames per second. While there have been professional cameras with depth capture in the past, this is the first time that a device of such characteristics is cheap enough to be built into any game system or computer.
As you can see in the video, the ZCam is completely different from the EyeToy or any other normal 2D webcam. Even while it's not as precise and flexible as a real full 3D motion tracking system, the videos show that it can indeed provide with a new level of interactivity in video games and any application—like computer user interface manipulation.
While the results could be quite impressive, I'm not convinced about some of the applications. The flight simulator, for example, seems to work great. However, unlike boxing, I have the feeling that I wouldn't be able to control a plane without actually grabbing something. Of course, I can pick anything to give me that feeling, just like a Nintendo Wiimote. But then again, in flight simulator games you want an actual joystick, so the "phantom" feeling of not having force feedback is the same for the ZCam and the Wiimote. For any other game, like first person shooters, this kind of technology could be really good if it lives up to its promise and developers can fully exploit it.
Its virtues could be even easier to apply in computer applications. The demonstration in the video, with the guy manipulating Vista with hand gestures, gives you a very good idea. As I use my iMac 24 to type this, I wish I can just wave my hand in the air quickly to consult a PDF, like Minority Report's Tom Cruise but without jumping in the sofa and scaring Oprah. Or touching, moving and clicking the mouse.
Since the ZCam is a piece of circuitry that can be integrated anywhere, and without taxing the CPU, I don't see why companies like Apple or Dell wouldn't adopt them for future desktop and portables. However, the technology has just been officially announced this week and it's too soon too tell. Whatever happens, it's good to see such a device coming to the market. Hopefully, we will see it in action with real world applications soon. In the meantime: