Although the Steven Spielberg movie “Minority Report” was set in 2054, the hands-free technology within that movie is vintage 2010. In a lecture at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, technology pioneer John Underkoffler of Oblong Industries presented his firm’s development process of a hands-free computing device that allows users to interact with their computers in a three dimensional form. As Underkoffler explained, by moving their arms, hands, and fingers to manipulate pre-configured data sets, the users shift from a clerical approach, where they are simply consuming or referencing the data via a limited point and click interface, to a more creative approach, where they are actively shaping the material on screen with their entire body.
While the Oblong Industries device is still just barely beta, Microsoft’s Kinect for X-Box utilizes a similar approach, freeing its users from having to interact with a keyboard or game controller by relying on voice commands and hand motions. Partly because Kinect is a product of the ubiquitous Microsoft, and partly because gaming equipment is popular among people with valid claims to their youth, this hands-free interface has substantial potential to alter how we interact with our computers and the internet at large.
Kinect employs motion sensors and voice recognition software to enable hands-free interaction. A company called Canesta has designed a more sophisticated sensing technology that allows machines to “see” by perceiving objects in 3D. Microsoft is currently acquiring Canesta’s technology. These tools could be adapted to web-cams and inexpensive audio software, allowing ordinary internet surfers and application users to wave away the sites they don’t want while admonishing their computer to update their online calendar. However, this basic hands-free set-up only works in conjunction with pre-configured, or “pre-cog” data sets, where standardized data sets are rendered in easily manipulated visual formats. Trying to set up a spreadsheet verbally, for example, only saves time if pre-configured templates already exist that allow the user to quickly organize and set-up processing formulas.
In the way that digitization swept over music and film, hands-free “pre-cog” data could very easily sweep over the internet and a majority of software packages. In a way, this trend has already started to occur. Data visualization, whereby massive amounts of complex data are collated into informative one-panel displays, allow users to quickly understand topics in-depth. The World Bank, for example, can show you the entire yearly precipitation totals for the globe in a 2” by 3” rectangle. Put another way, data visualization is the equivalent of Cliff Notes for a picture is worth a thousand words, for every conceivable human field. The tipping point, where the majority of computer users recognize that this method of data presentation is far superior to rambling text and poorly conceived graphics, is not far behind.
There are additional technological trends on the horizon that are threatening to dramatically change how we perceive data and even software itself. Cloud computing, for example, allows individuals and corporations to essentially virtually rent or lease software, hardware, and the virtual developmental tools and space known as PaaS, or Platform as a Service, in the same way that companies lease their electricity. Very few people bother to own an electricity generator of their very own; it’s impractical, and expensive. In the same way, this virtualization of technology that only a decade ago had to be physically owned in order to function renders tangible computer interfaces somewhat obsolete and needlessly expensive. Why would a business pay for terminals or software applications that sit idle? The majority of cloud computing providers can perform rapid scale-up and scale-down operations overnight. Data access is similar; why limit access to a clunky keyboard, when the hands, arms, and body have so much more flexibility?
To get back to the Kinect, it is one of the first viable types of mass-produced access tools that allow the user to dictate how and when images appear on their screen without directly touching anything. Admittedly, the Kinect is interfacing with an entirely pre-programmed suite of computer games. Making the leap from this relatively crude and limited tool to the highly advanced, cinematic sweep of Oblong Industries hands-free technology for the internet at large is going to take a little time and cooperation from multiple players. This may translate into at least a decade, depending on how willing technology companies are to invest in a product that essentially completely reconfigures their computing systems into walk-in closets. Hand-held devices will probably still be popular for anyone who travels outside of their homes or offices, although the bulk of data-manipulation (computing is such a 20th century term) will take place in these more interactive and visually engrossing settings.
There is little doubt that hands-free technology, in combination with increased flexibility of software and infrastructure services and mass collation of frequently utilized data sets, has the potential to transform the internet into a 3D experience that could be accessed by standing in your living room. This bold new interface will in turn change the way web developers make websites and how marketers advertise once again. Bye bye, mouse and hello full-body immersion!