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In Depth: Beyond the mouse: how input is evolving

CNETAnalysis: The arguments about interfaces might still be going on, but the touchscreen has won. If Windows 8 isn’t rushing off the shelves, at least some of the blame belongs to how few PC makers believed Microsoft when it said buyers would want a notebook with a touchscreen; those are the models that are selling but it seems PC makers didn’t order enough touchscreen stock. All Haswell Ultrabooks will have touchscreens when they launch in a few months. Even the Chromebook Pixel has a touchscreen (leaving the Mac as the last holdout). We’re hoping some tablet or makers pick up Synaptic’s touchscreen that sees when your thumb is on the screen and reflows text around it so you can read it. That’s this year though; in the future, we’re going to control out systems with a flick of the wrist, a roll of the eye or even by thinking at them – and yes, by shouting a bit as well. The technologies to give us interfaces that feel more natural than mouse, keyboard and touchscreen are on the way. Just smile and wave Voice interfaces aren’t new; we’ve been dictating documents and shouting at automated phone systems for years. Until voice-driven Google Glass arrives, Siri in iOS and voice recognition in Kinect for controlling Xbox are about the state of the art. Intel is trying to move that on by including Nuance’s Voice Assistant in the ‘perceptual computing’ kit it’s seeding developers with. We’re going to see voice in home entertainment systems as well; Voco showed off voice control for iOS and Android apps that let you search for the track you want to hear on its multi-room music streaming players. The hard part is getting unusual music names correct; the system gets 50 Cent but not Florence + the Machine. There are issues with talking to technology from background noise to strange looks from those around you. How about just looking at it? MIT spinout! Affectiva can already measure your emotional reaction to adverts by scanning your micro expressions through your webcam ; you might say you didn’t find the Samsung advert mocking iPhone users standing in line funny, but the Affdex system could tell if you were smiling when you watched it or not even paying attention. More useful and less creepy is Tobii’s gaze tracking system which works alongside your mouse and keyboard. Want to zoom in on a map? Instead of painstakingly centring it on screen before you click to zoom in (and then dragging it back to the right place), when we tried out the Tobii prototype at CES this year the map automatically zoomed in on the area we were looking at. We were also able to control a PowerPoint presentation, flicking back and forth between slides (and to blow up a few asteroids in a game). Using your eyes doesn’t replace the mouse or keyboard; it’s the combination that works so well. Think of all the times you forget to click on the document you’re looking at and end up typing into the last window you were using. Tobii will turn its prototype into a peripheral you can buy by the end of 2013, but the developers are sure they can make it much smaller and they’re talking to OEMs about building it right into a monitor or even a laptop. Kinect-style gestures are on their way to laptops as well, although probably not using the pricey 3d infrared cameras in Kinect or Intel’s USB 3D camera for developer just yet (although we quite like Intel’s idea of using a 3D camera and muscle movements to replace passwords with combined facial and voice recognition.) Those sensors cost about $70 according to Amnon Shenfeld of eyesight; the CMOS sensors in Webcams cost more like $1 – cheap enough to put two of them in a laptop to use for gesture tracking. Like the human eye, having two sensors means you can get an approximation of 3D; good enough for gestures. The eyesight system is fast, detecting a hand almost as soon as we lifted it in fron! t of the ! screen and accurate enough to detect small movements. We tried using two hands to zoom and a clenched fist to select and drag things around. The next version will be able to track gestures you make with your fingers says Shenfield, so you could close tabs in your browser or jump to the next slide in a presentation. Even cheaper is this prototype 3D pointer ring; it uses a holographic lens that costs 50c to make and tracks the movement of the points of coloured light from the hologram. Of course, you have to be happy to wear it. Still in the labs is Plessey’s sensor that detects the electricity in your body; put the sensor in the bezel of a screen and it can see your hand moving from about a foot away. Somewhere between gestures and touchscreens is this Displair system, which projects onto a stream of water vapour in mid air, so you can play Fruit Ninja by swiping your hand right through the ‘screen’. With the power of your mind The problem with gestures is they give you even more of a workout than reaching across to touch your laptop screen. What we really want is computers that know what we want to do; and that means scanning brainwaves. Neurosky is working on that. You might have seen the Necomimi cat ear headset (the ears wiggle when you’re paying attention), but there’s an ear-free $99 MindWave headset that works with Android and iOS devices – and a few dozen games and training tools to use with it so you can learn to relax or bend virtual spoons with the power of your mind. One developer is working on an interface to fly a quadricopter by relaxing and concentrating. Even without the ears, the headset is big and bulky (and not as cool as Google Glass either). BodyWave’s armband isn’t the smallest thing we’ve strapped on lately but it’s less obvious than the Neurosky headset and it certainly seemed to detect when we were paying attention to the training game on screen. More interesting is the wristband sensor; currently a prototype, this will co! st about ! $169 and be on sale in the summer or autumn (if all goes to plan) to control apps on your phone or tablet. BodyWave also wants to put its sensors into strips of conductive plastic on the back of car steering wheels, where they can detect if you’re falling asleep at the wheel. That’s probably more useful than controlling your phone with a thought (but not as much fun).

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