Technology / Just Cool, or Something More?

The race to develop new directions for the touch screen.

In 2002, when the movie "Minority Report" came out, it was moderately successful as an intelligent sci-fi thriller. But the film's more lasting impact seems to be in the field of user interfaces. The movie shows Tom Cruise using hand gestures to shift information around on a screen. It looks cool. Really cool. Ever since, the technology industry has been trying to get there.

We saw the first steps in this direction with portable devices that have touch-screen interfaces, like the iPhone and the iPad, and with Microsoft's Surface, a desk that is entirely a touch screen. But this wasn't quite it. In the coming year, as the movie hits its 10th anniversary, the vision appears to be coming ever closer to fruition, and two key forces will help get us there. One is John Underkoffler, who built the fictional interface for the movie. Underkoffler has spent the past decade working to transform his vision into reality.


It should be noted that this vision was not created solely for the movie. Steven Spielberg had contacted MIT in search of a technological vision for a future interface, and Underkoffler supplied it based on his doctoral work. Underkoffler's company, Oblong Industries, has now created a system called Mezzanine, which enables different devices - computers, telephones, tablets and screens - to be combined as data emitters and receivers, to which everyone in the room has access.

But what about the ability to move things on the screen with a mere wave of a hand? It's on the way, too. For several years, Texas Instruments has been developing processors for phones and tablets, and their next generation, which is being developed in Israel, is OMAP 5. They will be available for devices next year. One property of OMAP 5 is support for a tiny projector (known as Pico projectors, another technology that TI has been developing for years ) that projects onto a wall or any other available surface, an interface that can be manipulated with the hands. The projector presents the interface, while the camera on the device captures the hand movements.

Capturing the hand movements and identifying them as meaningful actions for the device is a technology that a number of tech companies are trying to develop as a replacement for popular touch interfaces. The first devices with this technology are likely to be presented in early 2012, at least in primitive versions.

All of which means that in the near future we will be able to answer the question that has been on the minds of tech and sci-fi aficionados for almost a decade: The interface in "Minority Report" is really cool, but is it useful? Does it have any real advantage over the keyboard?