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From sci-fi effects, real potential

Hollywood gave tech entrepreneur John Underkoffler an unlikely hand in getting two companies off the ground.

In 2000, Underkoffler, then a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, was experimenting with ways that graphics might be projected across the walls of a room instead of being confined to a computer screen. He also came up with a method that uses hand gestures instead of a mouse or keyboard to tell the computer what to do.

When Alex McDowell, a production designer for the sci-fi film ''Minority Report," visited the Media Lab, he was dazzled by Underkoffler's demo.

''They knew they were going to end up with some kind of weird interface that Tom Cruise would use," Underkoffler says of the movie's star. ''And he liked the physicality of the thing."

That Schwab's Drugstore moment in Cambridge spawned two companies: G-Speak LLC, which could change the way we control computers, and counts defense contractor Raytheon as its first customer, and Treadle & Loam Provisioners, a consultancy Underkoffler launched to provide scientific and technical advice to movie and TV producers.

So far, Underkoffler has offered guidance to the TV miniseries ''Taken" and movies such as ''The Hulk" and ''Aeon Flux," which stars Charlize Theron and will be released in December.

One production he's now working on is the Adam Sandler movie ''Click," which is about a man who discovers a remote control that enables him to fast-forward and rewind to different points in his life. It'll be out next year.

Underkoffler had always planned a move to Los Angeles and, in 2000, the opportunity to serve as a technical consultant to ''Minority Report" provided him with his chance. In the film, Cruise's character uses hand gestures to guide the computers he relies upon to investigate a murder that he is predicted to commit in the future.

But once ''Minority Report" was released in 2002, the idea that it might one day be possible to control computers like a symphony conductor directs an orchestra, with precise hand and finger movements, intrigued other businesses, including Raytheon.

How well did the technology work outside of a movie set? The Waltham company wanted to know.

''They engaged us to produce a proof-of-concept that was tuned for them," Underkoffler says. ''It happened very quickly. We did all of the development in about nine weeks, toward the end of last year."

The real-world G-Speak system, as designed for Raytheon, uses between six and eight infrared ''motion capture" cameras positioned around the room, each of which tracks tiny white reflective beads that are affixed to a pair of gloves. Specific gestures are linked to specific commands, like pointing at an object on the screen and moving it around.

Inside Raytheon, there was skepticism that the sci-fi technology would work, according to Allan Mattson, the company's director of advanced programs. But Mattson and his colleagues thought the potential balanced out the risks.

''A lot of our strategic programs have an information overload problem," he says. ''The problem is, if you've got more information than you can use, you tend to let it spill on the floor and just ignore it."

Raytheon's interest helped Underkoffler finance the start-up of G-Speak, which is working to commercialize the gestural interface technology. Raytheon and G-Speak collaborated on a demo of the technology for the National Space Symposium in April. Raytheon invented an acronym for the system -- crucial for getting bigwigs at the Department of Defense to take it seriously. It became known as IGET: Interactive Gestural Exploitation and Tools.

Mattson says that Raytheon is still talking with its government customers about building gestural technology into systems that perform tasks like sorting through surveillance data from satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles. He also thinks it may have applications in air traffic control or real-time crime investigation -- which harks back to ''Minority Report."

Underkoffler imagines applications outside of the defense industry.

''No one has come to our lab and not said, This would be perfect for my domain,"' he says. Some day, surgeons might rotate an MRI image of a patient's brain with a twist of the wrist. Video game players may vanquish foes with a virtual sock to the chin.

''We're at a moment of transition," Underkoffler says. ''We've been stuck with the mouse and keyboard for 25 or 30 years. Soon, we'll have a multiplicity of interface techniques available," from gestures to speech to eye movements and perhaps others, ''and you'll use the right tool for the task in question."

Virtual software,actual fundingToday, Acton-based Virtual Iron Software is expected to announce that it has raised a third round of $8.5 million in venture capital, bringing its total raised to $28.5 million. This latest round was led by Intel Capital, with participation from earlier investors Goldman Sachs, Highland Capital Partners, and Matrix Partners.

Virtual Iron sells virtualization software, which allows companies to wring more efficiency out of their servers, in much the same way a new closet organizer helps you cram more into your existing closet space.

By squeezing multiple software applications onto a single server, companies can avoid having to invest in additional hardware. The biggest local deal in virtualization happened in early 2004, when EMC Corp. in Hopkinton bought VMware in Palo Alto, Calif. for $625 million.

Virtual Iron was initially known as Katana Technology, and founded by Scott Davis, a veteran of Digital Equipment Corp., and Alex Vasilevsky, who worked at the supercomputer-maker Thinking Machines. The company hired a CEO, John Thibault, in January. Thibault had been the CEO and cofounder of GeoTel Communications, which was bought by Cisco in 1999.

Virtual Iron marketing chief Mike Grandinetti explains that the company isn't just focused on making the most of individual servers, but the entire data center, including servers, storage equipment, and networking gear.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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