7 cool consumer technologies coming soon to a cubicle near you

Move over, tablets and phones. Here are seven user technologies heading for the enterprise.

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Ask CIOs what comes to mind when they hear the term "consumerization of IT" and most likely you'll hear tales of users carrying personal smartphones and tablets into the workplace, demanding access to corporate email and other applications.

But mobile devices aren't the only consumer-based technologies pushing their way into the enterprise. Computerworld spoke with visionaries and practitioners on the cutting edge of emerging technologies to get their take on what's coming into the office next. The verdict? Some technologies will be brought to the business directly by consumers -- virtual assistant, anyone? But in the case of technologies like smartphone servers, innovations from the consumer market are being adapted for enterprise use.

Here are seven consumer tech trends coming soon to a cubicle near you.

Natural user interfaces

A move to natural, more intuitive user interfaces, such as 3D gesture-, voice-, emotion- and even brainwave-recognition, will begin to change the way users interact with technology. "IT is shifting from something you constantly have to drive to becoming an intelligent assistant, and it will start to become invisible," says Steve Clayton, who, as Microsoft's storyteller, works with research and product teams across Microsoft to spot trends.

One such trend: "Technology will start to create an environment where language translation will more naturally occur," Clayton predicts.

In a recent demonstration, Microsoft researcher Rick Rashid spoke in English to an audience in China, which heard him speaking Mandarin. That translation occurred in real time. "It wasn't just a robotic voice taking his words and speaking them back. The prototype [software] understood Rick's voice and turned it into Mandarin," says Clayton. "It sounded just like he was speaking Mandarin."

In another area, gesture technology, now widely used on 2D tablets, may soon move into three dimensions. Leap Motion, a maker of motion-control systems, is preparing to offer a controller capable of fine-grained gesture recognition. "Think about something that can track the tip of your finger in space," says Dave Evans, chief futurist at Cisco Systems. Using this new tool, he says, "you will be able to literally design an object in space, push and pull and shape it like virtual clay, and then drag and drop in pre-engineered pieces."

Products developed for the consumer gaming market, such as Kinect, the gesture-based controller for Microsoft's Xbox, and KinectFusion, which adds multiple cameras to build a 3D representation of the world, could become popular as an interface for applications in areas ranging from healthcare to manufacturing.

Microsoft's KinectFusion system takes live data from a moving depth camera to create high-quality 3D models in real time.

Microsoft recently demonstrated one use of the technology in an Audi showroom in London, where customers used Kinect to navigate around and outfit 3D representations of automobiles. And in a virtual dressing room at a Bloomingdale's department store, the technology was used to paint clothes onto a 3D representation of a shopper on a video screen. "It sees the world in 3D and hears the world in the same way we do. It is a blending of the physical and digital worlds," Clayton says.

This blended technology could also be used in an enterprise setting. For example, an automobile engineer could scan a physical vehicle to create a digital 3D model that could be shared with colleagues who could annotate it as they talked about it, Clayton says, adding that there are many other potential business-to-business and business-to-consumer applications.

In the consumer market, brain-machine interfaces are evolving for tasks such as thought-based remote control of toys. Of course, many projects involving this type of technology still fall into the realm of pure academic research, but eventually, you may be able to read your email just by thinking about it, says Cisco's Evans.

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