Switched On: Token gestures

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|06.29.10

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Switched On: Token gestures
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

In early 2005, even after the launch of the Nintendo DS, Switched On critiqued pen computing, noting that it was too cumbersome and unnatural to become a mainstream input method. That column was validated by the launch of the iPhone, which banished the stylus to "blown it" status and popularized "finger-friendly" handset designs from all major smartphone OS developers.

Many have described the user interfaces of products such as the iPhone and Surface as ushering in the post-WIMP (windows-icon-mouse-pointer) era. Former Windows Magazine editor Mike Elgan has referred to the new paradigm as "MPG" (multitouch, physics, gestures) However, while these user interfaces feature streamlined designs and more direct manipulation, they still form a bridge with the graphical user interface. The main shift has been to more direct manipulation as the device processes more natural inputs.

The same can be said for Kinect. For a tidy sum and some untidiness, Kinect enables the kind of motion-sensing gameplay that has become the Wii's hallmark without having to strap the controller to various limbs (as with EA Active for Wii). In fact it eliminates the need to hold a controller entirely, just like the iPhone and iPad free users of mice and styluses. Beyond Soviet Russia, the input device uses you.
Since Kinect employs cameras to determine the position of various limbs, it can offer video calling and "reaction shots" as demoed in Microsoft's E3 press conference. Furthermore, as Microsoft showed off the Xbox's new entertainment dashboard, Kinect has applications far beyond games. The product's official full name -- Kinect for Xbox 360" -- leaves open the possibility that it will be offered for other platforms such as Windows. Indeed, creating different combinations of cameras and microphones that offer Kinect functionality could become an important new differentiator for PC companies.

Different combinations of cameras and mics with Kinect functionality could become an important new differentiator for PC companies.

In the iPhone and iPad, though, multitouch found a home in a new user interface designed for it. In contrast, just as the broad usefulness of touch on Windows 7 has been largely relegated to custom user interface layers such as those in HP's TouchSmart PCs or Surface demo applications, the impact of Kinect's blend of seeing and hearing the user will fall short of its potential tacked on to today's desktop operating systems. This was clear from a recent demonstration by startup PointGrab, which uses the kind of inexpensive webcam already found on many netbooks to control the UI. One could easily see the technology's application for, say, Windows Media Center control, but its reliance upon mouse emulation makes it less efficient for manipulating the core of the desktop operating system's functionality.

The manipulation and video calling capabilities of Kinect, then, may be more promising for a new breed of TVs and set-tops such as the Logitech Revue. Part of the rationale for Logitech to enter the thorny TV add-on market has been to create a Trojan horse for videoconferencing it has long offered via its webcams and more recently via its acquisition of corporate videoconferencing company LifeSize. As a platform, Revue is open enough to accommodate new input methods, but it lacks the core integration with TV media that has plagued all other TV add-on boxes. The key to broadening the gesture and voice recognition of Kinect, then, is to make it integral to a device that offers a new way of controlling old and new media.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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