Photo: Rick Madonik/ZUMA Press/Corbis

While laptop and desktop computers are still controlled by keyboards and mice, anyone who is even partially conscious of advances in modern technology knows that the days of physical typing and clicking are numbered. With the steady advance of smartphones and tablets into our lives, the touchscreen has become ubiquitous and expected. But swiping’s place in the sun may not last, thanks to the arrival of gestural interfaces that capture user movement and translate it into computer commands.

The idea of gesture recognition has been around for a while, but in the past few years it has become a fixture in many households. First there was the Nintendo Wii, the gaming system whose controller can be pointed and waved to dictate what happens on screen. But the real future of gestural interfaces lies in the user’s movement unaided by controls. For that, there’s Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect.


The Frontrunner

The key to translating movement into a form a computer can recognize is measuring depth- a game that only lets a player move in two dimensions would not only be lame, it wouldn’t work. The Kinect uses multiple cameras and a technique called structured light. An infrared pattern is projected outwards and distortions in the pattern reflect user movements. Players can jump, spin, punch and dance, and their onscreen avatars follow suit.

Going by sales figures, the technology is catching on quickly. The Kinect holds the Guinness World Record for fastest selling consumer electronics device ever; eight million units were sold in two months. The gaming system is the forefront of gestural interface technology, but the future won’t be limited to boxing and bowling games.


Emerging Competition

Because the Kinect enables 3D motion capture for an affordable price, it has been thoroughly hacked, with a wide variety of new and unexpected uses. KinectShop lets users try on clothes virtually, taking online shopping to a new level. Kitchen robots use Kinect technology to make sandwiches and popcorn (albeit rather slowly). Rather than fighting the trend, Microsoft is embracing it, offering a software development kit for students, teachers and even professional researchers.

But the Kinect and upcoming competitors like Asus’ WAVI Xtion (a few months away from production) represent only one branch of gestural interface technology, a market that Markets and Markets predicts will reach $3658.8 million by 2015. Smartphones using motion sensing technology are being developed to knock touchscreens out for good.


The Future

MIT Media Lab professors Ramesh Raskar, Henry Holtzman and Hiroshi Ishii are working on a screen with optical sensors to detect the placement and movement of the finger, no smudging or swiping required. Basically, it would work like a “giant lensless camera,” according to GizMag.

Of course, gestural interfaces could move far beyond the consumer market and be put to uses as diverse as personal robots and sign language recognition. Judging by the success of the Kinect, which has introduced the technology to the public, sometime in the future we’ll have forgotten all about keyboards.


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