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Use Your Interface

In the earliest days, when people thought of computers they thought of massive room-filling machines capable of some fundamental logic-based computation. As time went on, that image shrank down to the classic screen and keyboard setup. Apple revolutionized that by designing the world’s first Graphical User Interface (GUI) and creating a companion for the keyboard: the mouse. Since then computers have gotten considerably more powerful and compact. We have the Internet now, which has totally changed the way we use computers. Technology is rapidly evolving, CPU keep getting faster, graphic cards more powerful, memory more vast. And yet we remain stagnantly attached to the mouse and keyboard.

Don’t get me wrong, the mouse and keyboard are a pretty good set up. We are so familiar with this set up that many of us can type quickly without looking at the screen and orchestrate complex works of art with the mouse. And the idea of change is scary. When I just tried to use a different keyboard layout (Dvorak) I found it so frustratingly slow I gave up after just a couple days. Change is too hard, I thought. But now I’m not so sure that is the case. Maybe what I really found out was that keyboards and mice are not an intuitive way of interacting with computers, but we just accept them anyway. Maybe it’s time we move away to a new form of input. Which is why the work that some people are doing right now is so exciting.

Personally, 10/GUI is the most exciting new UI currently in development because it seems so practical. Since the iPhone, we have all fallen in love with multi-touch. Which we should have, it’s great technology. But I refuse to believe that people actually want to spend all their time dragging their fingers all over their nice monitor at home. That’s tiring and people don’t like seeing all the finger prints when the screen turns off. 10/GUI makes a strong case for itself, logically allowing users to utilize all the power of multi-touch while keeping them comfortable and even leaving the keyboard for text editing.

But what about going farther into the future? To modern minds something like 10/GUI seems plausible, but what about a UI that is a little more science fiction? Something a little more Minority Report? Well, funny story. That fancy computer interface you saw in Minority Report was designed by the folks over at MIT to resemble what they thought computers could be like in 2050 or whenever that movie was set. And even though it’s only 2010, MIT is closer to producing a similar UI than you might expect.

As you can see, gesture-based computing is approaching reality. But, besides being really cool, what is the appeal of this? After all, standing up and making sweeping gestures is a lot more exhausting than the borderline nothing computer users do today. You won’t want to jerk it in fancy gloves with cameras watching you. And it seems that text editing would take a hit, since you would be forced to use a slower on screen keyboard or actually dictate everything you want written. And yet this is definitely the direction technology is going in.

The Wii kind of got movement back in the picture a few years back. Later this year, movement will be pushed into further prominence when Microsoft comes out with Kinect (formerly Project Natal) and Sony comes out with PlayStation Move. Both use cameras to track the player in a 3D space. Move uses a Wiimote-esque controller with a magical ball on the top of it that lights up that the camera can very accurately track. Kinect thinks even that is too much, so it just straight up tracks your body. Neither of these technologies are available to the public yet, but it will be exciting to see what they do for the future of gaming. But the future of UI has to be bigger than just gaming consoles. Hell, it has to be bigger than computers as we know them.

Sixth Sense is amazing if it actually works. Being able to enjoy the best aspects of a computer wherever you go is something everyone can enjoy. Obviously there are problems with projector strength and battery life, but that Sixth Sense technology is about as exciting an approach to computing I’ve seen in the real world.

But does it replace the keyboard? I’m not convinced. Despite all the new, exciting UI technology that is currently in development, I don’t see any better method of alpha numeric input than the keyboard. And sometimes you just want to sit back and relax when you play a game or browse the Internet. I think gestures are a bit too much for that all the time. But the wonderful thing about our powerful modern machines is that you don’t need to choose one or the other. You can have both. It’s all about making the experience better for us. And that’s what is most exciting of all.