From the labs: IT's future today

The future of IT is taking shape in the form of next-generation computing technologies under development in today's R&D labs

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User interface: Beyond the mouse
The ways in which we use computers have changed radically since the dawn of the PC era, but the ways in which we interact with computers are essentially the same as when Apple introduced the first Macintosh in 1984. The desktop metaphor, with its cursors, pointing devices, files, folders, windows, scrollbars, and other control widgets still dominates virtually every graphical OS platform.

At least that's true in real life. Look to the fanciful worlds of Hollywood movies, however, and you'll see a dazzling array of radical new UI concepts, from the hovering screens of "Minority Report" to Iron Man's in-helmet displays. Can any of these ideas be made practical for commercial use?

Microsoft thinks so. Its Surface UI platform offers new ways of transforming familiar objects -- such as tables -- into collaborative computing spaces, complete with novel input devices that move beyond the limitations of the common mouse. But Microsoft's most anticipated input innovation is Kinect for Xbox 360, formerly known as Project Natal. Aimed at helping Microsoft's Xbox compete with the Nintendo Wii console, Kinect for Xbox 360 is a gaming interface with no controllers. Instead, players manipulate in-game objects simply by moving and gesturing in midair. If the concept catches on with consumers, it could have potential applications for kiosks and touchscreen devices, as well.

Perhaps the best example of Hollywood UI technology made real, however, is the g-speak spatial operating environment from Oblong Industries. With roots at MIT's Media Laboratory, g-speak enables spatial and gestural control of graphical objects for a wide range of potential applications. With 3-D televisions and monitor screens expected to go mainstream in the near future, don't be surprised if g-speak or something like it is coming soon to a PC near you.

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