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Talk, touch, wave, buzz: meet the interfaces of the future

Next gen interfaces
Next gen interfaces will shape our future

We're long past keyboard and mouse being the default for computer control, but other than the touchscreen, "natural" user interfaces haven't really taken off.

Some of the wackier ideas we saw at CES this year - like brainwave wristbands - might never become mainstream.

But if the newly-released Leap Motion and the upcoming Kinect 2 give us a taste for alternative inputs, what other interface technology is on the horizon?

Wave your hands

Kinect isn't the only motion control system around. Oblong - a company based on technology created by the designer of the infamous Minority Report mid-air interface, John Underkoffer - has a (pricey) videoconferencing room system called Mezzanine that uses sensors mounted on the ceiling to let you drag documents around on the virtual whiteboard with a wand that also gives you a mouse button.

If you don't have the cash or the space for an installation like Mezzanine, you can use a Kinect, a PC, a projector and the Ubi software that turns any surface into an interactive touch screen - the price starts at $149, depending on how large a screen you want. Want to see your recipes on the kitchen counter or Angry Birds on your bedroom wall? Ubi does that.

Next gen interfaces

The Leap Motion controller is available to buy now

If you want something smaller than Kinect that lets you wave your hands at your PC or Mac, the long-awaited Leap Motion is shipping (and looking more like an Apple accessory than the angular Kinect).

Although it's supposed to be a lot more sensitive than Kinect, it's still somewhat variable in use. Scrolling through documents and web pages works well, doing something precise like selecting an icon can be tricky. Even though you can buy it, we're classing this as a work in progress.

With the right software, you could do much the same with Kinect - check out this video of Microsoft researcher Cem Keskin using his hands to paint in FreshPaint and zoom in Bing Maps.

One finger with Kinect 2

"If Xbox One is a success, Kinect 2 could be the next-generation interface in everyone's home"

Kinect 2, shipping with Xbox One, will be a lot more sensitive than the original Kinect; three times as sensitive in fact. Instead of a blur, it sees a pretty accurate 3D representation of whoever is standing in front of it. You can see lips moving when someone is talking or the wrinkles on their shirt.

The wider field of view means more people can play at once: we saw it detect six people at the same time at the Build conference, all dancing away.

And it can see further. During the demonstration we watched, the presenter had to walk off the stage to get out of range. The improved skeleton tracking picks up hand motions accurately. It can detect more of the joints in your hand, so it picks up finger and thumb movements too.

Microsoft says the voice recognition will be even better than the current Kinect. In our tests with the new fully voice enabled Sky app for Xbox, that's pretty reliable already.

With Kinect in the box, more developers will take advantage of it and it won't just be for games. If Xbox One is a success, Kinect 2 could be the next-generation interface is everyone's home. The combination of voice and gesture might show up at work too.

Multimode air traffic control

Chris Wild of design company Altran told us about a possible system they're experimenting with for air traffic controllers.

As flight paths get scheduled further in advance instead of today's ad hoc approach, sorting out routing problems without causing delays to other flights will get more difficult, so controllers need to work together closely.

In their setup, the supervisor who needs an overview of all the air space they're responsible for stands at a large screen that shows them all the planes and routes in 3D.


Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.