Small gestures: Talking to tomorrow's tech

Forget about typing, clicking, or talking; the interface of the future will be--literally--in your hands.

It was a typical Saturday morning, and my children were swinging nunchuks at each other again. Though my son and daughter go medieval on each other several times a day, I wasn't worried. They were just using the Wii.

The Wii's success is truly phenomenal. All but dead in the console race three years ago, Nintendo is now leaving Sony and Microsoft in the dust]]. (In July, Nintendo sold more Wii consoles than Sony did PlayStation 3s or Microsoft did Xbox 360s combined, The NPD Group reports.) The biggest reason, aside from its low price: its easily mastered, gesture-based interface.

"Gesture interfaces are the most natural, intuitive, transparent ways to interact with the digital world," says Michel Tombroff, CEO of Softkinetic, which makes gesture-recognition software used in games and other applications. In fact, gestures are easier for computers to handle than speech recognition, since they don't have to account for differences in pronunciation.

The Clapper's Great Legacy

The Wii has inspired consumer electronics manufacturers to reach beyond the handheld remote, says Scott Nazarian, principal designer for Frog Design, a San Francisco-based product design consultancy. For example, at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, JVC demonstrated a prototype LCD TV that let you turn it on or off, control the volume, and change channels just by snapping your fingers or clapping your hands.

Nazarian says in a couple of years you'll be able to buy an HDTV with infrared sensors and cameras built into the bezel that create a 3D topographical map of the room. When someone walks in--or if you turn your head to talk to them--the TV will detect that movement and pause the action, then resume when it has your attention.

Likewise, gesture recognition is coming to mobile handsets in a big way, says Daniel Longfield, strategic analyst for Frost & Sullivan. The iPhone, of course, responds differently depending on how you move your finger across its touch screen; but other phones, like Sony Ericsson's F305, have built-in motion sensors, so you can play games using Wii-like movements to, say, toss a bowling ball down a virtual alley or cast an imaginary fishing line.

Nazarian believes that such interfaces could even spawn a gesture-based language that influences pop culture; in ten years our children may communicate via gestures learned from using tech devices--a new vocabulary totally alien to older generations.

Eventually we'll move beyond playing charades in front of our PCs to controlling devices using nothing but brain waves, says Longfield.

Sound like science fiction? It's not. OCZ's Neural Impulse Actuator (or "NIA") will let you control video games by wearing a headband that detects electrical biosignals in the body. The device is available at Amazon for US$140. And Brown University scientists have created a brain implant that allows quadriplegics to move a mouse cursor just by thinking about it.

The full convergence of man and machine is probably still decades away, so mice, keyboards, joysticks, microphones, and remotes won't disappear entirely, at least not anytime soon. But over the next few years we'll be using them less and less, and controlling devices with our bodies more and more.

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Dan Tynan

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