Stand in front of the monitors. Wait until you see an outline of your body lit up with bright lines that look like neon versions of your largest veins on the lower screen. Now raise your hands up and watch the images on the higher screen move around. Jerk your left hand to the side and an object might disappear stage right. Draw a circle and the object might rotate. If it’s not picking up any of your gestures, move closer.
This is the kind of high-tech hokey-pokey to which enterprise users may have to become accustomed if something like Microsoft Corp.’s Natal finds a home in corporations. Right now the system, rigged up with heat-sensing displays and an infrared camera, is being designed to work with Xboxes to one-up the Nintendo Wii’s handheld controller. But deep in the heart of its corporate campus in Redmond, Wash., where ComputerWorld Canada was given an exclusive preview of Microsoft’s newly-designed Envisioning Lab, Natal is being set up along with other prototypes in a showcase for the world’s largest software company’s biggest clients. Other concept input technologies include touch-screen consoles, smart tables which can scan a handheld device and speech-enabled applications.
All these are examples of what Microsoft is calling the natural user interface (NUI), and what the rest of the world has traditionally termed the study of human-computer interaction (HCI). Whichever acronym you choose, it’s an approach that could radically change not only the user experience, but the scope and purpose of technical support. Today, IT departments are responsible for setting up PCs with applications like Microsoft Office and taking care of trouble-shooting. What happens when they also start implementing NUI-style computers that have to respond to individual gestures, speech patterns or fingertips?
Not a replacement
Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research officer, is careful to try to manage expectations, suggesting that the NUI will simply complement what’s already there. “NUI doesn’t replace GUI,” he said. “You’ll still use a GUI to open a document, to edit a document, things like that ... the idea is here is to turn the computer into a helper, more than a tool.”