What was Star Trek science fiction yesterday is computing reality today, a top ranking Intel executive said at a recent company event in Israel. Perceptual computing will add emotions and context to our interactions with computers, allowing us to communicate with them naturally, and enabling them to “read” our emotions and anticipate our needs.

The technology to do all this is here right now, said Intel Corporate Vice President Mooly Eden. To enhance its perceptual computing project, Intel on Tuesday confirmed that it was purchasing Israel’s Omek Interactive, a top innovator in the field of 3D gesture technology, exactly the kind of thing Intel needs to enhance the natural gesture interaction it wants to put onto a plethora of devices.

Eden was speaking in Haifa last month at an event in which the company showed off its technology to over 1,000 local engineers and employees. The technology, much of it developed in Israel, will be powering a new generation of Intel-inside products, from new “two in one” tablets/laptops to smart television sets. The next generation of the Intel tablet processor Bay Trail is due to appear in products by the end of the year, and benchmark tests by a number of PC and device review websites and magazines rate the processors very highly.

But that’s this year’s news; next year’s news, or the year after’s, is “NII” — computers and devices “that are natural, intuitive, and immersive,” said Eden. “Control-Alt-Delete,” the keyboard combination to restart a computer, “is not natural. Neither is communicating with a keyboard or a mouse. Even touch technology isn’t intuitive,” in that you wouldn’t necessarily communicate with other people by touching them. “Gestures, voice, and facial expressions — the natural things that God gave you — those are intuitive,” said Eden, and it’s Intel’s aim to integrate those capabilities into computing experiences.

That experience will also be immersive, meaning that talking to a computer or device will be no different from talking to a friend. “The device will already understand what you want, will recognize how you feel, and will respond appropriately,” Eden added.

The road from here to there isn’t as long as you might think; much of the technology already exists, and what doesn’t is already well under development.

Integral to that experience is gesture technology, giving the device the ability to see what its user is doing and respond appropriately. Intel has already done considerable work in this area, including developing a 3D camera that will be included in models of its new laptops/tablets next year, and the technology developed by Omek Interactive matches Intel’s vision perfectly.

One of the problems with 3D interaction is ensuring that it can pick up not only “gross” actions — i.e., whole body movement and wide, sweeping gestures — like the Microsoft Kinect system does, but also close-up gestures, allowing for greater variety and subtlety in gestures. The same “fine” gesture capability is needed for longer distance gestures, and the technology needs to work with a 3D camera, allowing for the programming of depth differences in gestures.

Omek’s technology offers all that. The company’s Grasp system “allows for the creation of responsive, natural interfaces based on positions and movements of a user’s hands,” the company says. “Grasp is a full-featured development suite that gives device manufacturers the ability to add gesture recognition into a vast range of products.” For longer-range fine gesture capability, Omek offers Beckon, which allows developers “to create controller-free interfaces that allow users to express themselves naturally and intuitively so the device understands them, instead of the other way around.”

At the Intel event, Eden demonstrated a number of applications using fine, close-up gesture technology. “With gesture technology the computer will become an extension of the body,” Eden said, demonstrating a game in which a virtual on-screen hand, controlled by hand gestures picked up by a 3D camera, caught virtual coins and had to avoid virtual bites from a very realistic-looking snake. “With a 3D camera you can place a face on the screen, and create a movie in minutes, editing the film on-screen with your fingers.” Not to mention all the things you can do in the augmented reality area, Eden added.

In a sign of things to come, Omek announced in June that it had developed, together with Taiwanese company Compal Electronics, the world’s first gesture-based “touchless” computer.

“Using Grasp as the underlying software to add gesture recognition, Compal has designed and built a fully integrated gesture-based All-In-One for one of their major customers,” said Omek. “The end result features an All-in-One computer with full 3D motion control and gesture recognition based on a 3D camera built directly into the bezel of the screen. No additional peripheral device needed. Hands, though, are required.”

Compal showed off the system at Taiwan’s huge Computex show last month, as Intel was showing off its own 3D advancements. Could the Compal system have inspired Intel to close a deal to buy Omek — especially, since it was rumored that other companies (like Qualcomm) were also interested in Omek, and that Intel had been speaking to the company for several months already? Intel won’t tell, but there’s no question that its gesture technology fits right in with Eden’s Perceptual Computing vision, and that pretty soon, we will probably be seeing an Intel touchless computer, too.