If you think about it, the whole "windows," "folders" and "tabs" method we use to interact with computers is a two-dimensional metaphor for a three-dimensional concept. But what if we got to reach into the screen and move all that stuff around with our hands?
That kind of gesture-based computer interface could be beautiful, if you take the work of MIT grad student Jinha Lee as any indication. He recently presented his 3D Desktop interface at the TED conference in Long Beach, California (a technology we took note about a year ago). The 3D Desktop relies on a transparent LED display and two cameras that track the user's hand gestures and eyes. Lee also showed off a collapsible pen that moves, virtually, deep through a display so that the user can draw real three-dimensional designs.
It will be a very long time before computer interfaces like these become a reality. Before we're invited to reach inside a monitor sitting on a desk, we will be given a chance to control computers with our hands by pointing, flicking, pinching, waving and grabbing in mid-air to accomplish even mundane computing tasks. Two hotly anticipated "gesture-based" devices will be sold to consumers this year.
The first, the $79.99 Leap Motion Controller, will become available in May. A small, distinctly Apple-like aluminum device sits in front of the monitor and uses two cameras and three infrared LEDs to track subtle finger motions in the three-foot space around the computer. Though the concept is similar, the Leap Motion Controller is far more sensitive than Microsoft's Kinect, and its applications go far beyond gaming.
Another new motion-based computer interface is the $149 Thalmic Labs Myo arm band, due later this year. Sensors in the Bluetooth band measure electric impulses in your arm muscles to determine what motions you're making towards your computer.
Though its unlikely that any of these alternative interfaces will supplant the good old mouse and keyboard (or trackpad), these elegant options take up little space and could aid in fitting our computers into our lives and homes in a more seamless and organic way.
As a child, Rachel Rosmarin pretended to be Penny Gadget (niece of Inspector) and toted around an imaginary book-shaped computer and connected wristwatch. When she grew up, she became a technology journalist.
Read more from Rachel »