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Elgan: Voice, gestures dominate CES

The biggest trend from CES: Next-generation interfaces are here, big time.

January 14, 2012 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Trying to follow CES breaking news coverage is like that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy is working in a chocolate factory and the conveyor belt carrying the candies keeps moving faster and faster. It's stressful, confounding and, ultimately, can't be done.

Here's a product. Here's another product. Here are 50 products. The quantity of products introduced is expressed in yards, and even football fields.

Did you read the skinny on skinny TVs and skinny laptops? How about phones that control lamps and air conditioners at home? Android gadgets, iPhone accessories and cameras galore. Most of the coverage focused on what gadgets can do, rather than how we interact with them -- which, to me, is the most exciting news.

Missing in all of the coverage was the Big Story of CES this year: The future of human-machine interfaces has arrived at last.

Futurists -- including Yours Truly -- have been predicting for years that the future of all computing and miscellaneous gadgetry involves the addition of these three user interfaces to our desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile phone devices:

1. Multitouch

2. Voice

3. In-the-air gestures

But wait, you say. These interfaces have been around for years. And that's true. But there's a big difference between a technology that's available passively and enjoyed by a few power users, and a technology that's so widespread that it changes culture.

Of course, Apple mainstreamed multitouch interfaces in 1997 with the iPhone. It's attempting to do the same with voice via Siri on the iPhone 4S, with mixed results.

Microsoft has semi-mainstreamed in-the-air gestures with its Kinect for Xbox 360.

But until now, these interface features have been used in a broad way only by users of specific products. Voice command is an iPhone thing, and to a lesser extent an Android thing. In-the-air gestures are an Xbox thing.

The vast majority of phone users, for example, don't use voice commands. Hardly any TV viewers use anything except old-and-busted remote controls. Desktop and laptop PC users mostly use keyboards and mice as the interface between themselves and their online activities.

Let's not underestimate the impact that the new interfaces will have. Instead of "using" devices, as we do now, we're heading toward a world where all our electronics will be so smart that we can interact with them as we do other humans. Computing will become increasingly natural and intuitive, because we'll be able to control our high-tech tools by reaching out and directly manipulating on-screen objects, talking in plain language, or using natural hand gestures and body language.

If CES is any indication, the long-awaited future of ubiquitous next-generation interfaces starts this year. Here's what happened at the show.

1. Multitouch

One of the most innovative products demonstrated was the new Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga. It's a laptop that supports multitouch interaction, but more importantly it has a hinge that makes it especially useful. Thanks to the hinge, users to set up the IdeaPad Yoga in an upside-down V configuration, to support multitouch interaction at an angle. It can also swing all the way around and become a tablet.

The most exciting advancements are those that help bring tablet-like multitouch technology to the desktop.

Lenovo introduced an all-in-one desktop PC called the IdeaCentre A720. If I hadn't switched to Macs recently and wanted to buy a PC, this is the one I would buy. Why? Because it features a super-thin 27-in. screen designed to tilt. It can go from vertical to horizontal, so users can find that multitouch sweet spot.

Even though there was a good deal of recognition of multitouch's potential at the show, it's somewhat shocking that only Lenovo seems to understand the spectacularly obvious reality that PC multitouch isn't going to happen on a vertical screen.

A company called MultiTouch Ltd. unveiled a 55-in. table-like multitouch display called the MT550W7. The display runs Windows, and the vendor's proprietary Computer Vision Through Screen (CVTS) technology allows an unlimited number of fingers to simultaneously touch and use the screen.

Other companies, such as IOGear, NUITEQ, Perceptive Pixel and Corning, also unveiled multitouch products that were neither phones nor tablets.

2. Voice

The early leader in voice command and dictation, Nuance, which I've written about in this space, was everywhere at CES. Nuance is the company behind the Dragon line of voice-recognition software applications, as well as the dictation technology used in Apple's Siri.

Intel announced a partnership with Nuance that would bring voice commands to laptops. Processing would take place locally, optimized by Intel chips, rather than being offloaded to remote servers.



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