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BW Businessworld

Now You See Me, So No Touching

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If you think waggling your fingers and waving your hands at computers and gadgets is more natural than touching and typing, you’re in for a treat. The day when you will use gestures and your voice to communicate with all the devices around you is not far away. And what’s more, the gadgets will understand you and respond. 
 
There’s already the familiar Microsoft Kinect for XBox 360 that registers large gestures in 3D space and even some face movements. Leap Motion is a tiny device that hooks up with a PC and also does accurate finger and hand-tracking to help you work with your PC in a more ‘human’ way.

On phones, Samsung’s heavy use of hand gestures and other tricks has meant inputting with gestures really isn’t alien anymore. But now, another big player has stepped in to take man-machine interaction to another level — Intel. This means new ways of communicating have come to the world of PCs, especially Ultrabooks. The idea is to make computing more natural, intuitive and immersive, says Intel. 
 
As we all know, PCs and notebooks are doing far fewer numbers today than they used to, putting pressure on companies like Intel and Microsoft to do something revolutionary enough to make people buy them again. With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to create an ecosystem where phones, tablets and notebooks all reflect the same interface and experience in your life. Intel, on the other hand, is gunning for a world in which computing has gone perceptual. It aims to create a world where users go back to the roots of how they communicate naturally — with body language — perhaps even shedding the keyboard and mouse. You need the processing power to do that and that’s where Intel comes in. A device like an everyday Ultrabook, equipped with a powerful processor and hooked up with a depth-sensing camera is what will set up the scene for the next big change in man-machine interface. And along with that, a thick layer of software to tell both computer and user what to do. 
 
Research at Intel on perceptual computing has been going on for a while, but now it’s time to step on the gas. Intel has set up a $100 million investment fund to help start-ups and accelerate the development of software to make perceptual computing experiences get out of the lab and into the wild. And it’s happening. As we speak, a challenge has been thrown to developers to come up with applications that use voice and face recognition, movement tracking and even expression input. You can see the progress on these, with examples, online. Intel has distributed an SDK (software development kit) and those working on it find that it is easy to use. The camera made by Creative, in particular, is said to be sensitive and quick. Once the image of your hand or face is fed in, you’re ready for a whole repertoire of gestures. 
 
The implication of this on education, of course, is enormous — imagine being able to create the solar system with a few gestures. The wonder alone would make students learn. It’s equally big for gaming, as Kinect technology advances. 
 
‘Perceptual computing’ projects will be pouring in during the next two or three years. As more sensors — already in smartphones — are added, the possibilities expand, with emotion-recognition not too far off either. While it’s more natural to move our hands and face to communicate, it’s also true that this is while talking to other people, not inanimate electronic devices. We’re used to using the ‘rather limiting’ keyboard and mouse. A whole rewiring to our brain will have to take place as well, and one can only hope that this is gradual. It’s more natural to talk than to type, but even though voice recognition has been around for decades, it’s far from foolproof and also most embarrassing to use in public. Though talking into my smartphone to enter text or ask Google something has begun to work so well, there are few times when I can do this without feeling awkward. The technology may be around the corner, but are we ready to use it beyond a novelty? 

mala(at)pobox(dot)com,
Twitter: (at)malabhargava

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 29-07-2013)