Move over Apple, Microsoft could be UI leader

Microsoft could be ahead of the wave with gesture interfaces

Known for its attractive touch interface, Apple may have some competition in the next generation of user interfaces, according to an analyst.

"Microsoft Kinect has legs much beyond gaming and perhaps it's the future for interacting in bigger spaces," said Al Hilwa, an IDC analyst.

He said that Windows 8 might have support for gestures, especially if it will connect to a television and act as a set top box.

"Microsoft clearly has opportunity, but it has an execution issue," he said. "They have their hands full with making a good tablet OS, but the opportunity [to take advantage of a gesture interface] is great."

He said there is no doubt that "everyone" is thinking about gestures, pointing out Qualcomm's July 2011 acquisition of gesture recognition assets from GestureTek.

Hilwa called gesture technology "more compelling than 3D" and said that if Apple wants to get in the game it would need to do significant research before making a move.

Exact specifications for Windows 8 are unknown, but another analyst doesn't discount the fact that it could include a gesture interface. Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner, said that gaming "has presented a lot to us" and said that the major game consoles have skipped touchscreens and gone directly to gesture recognition. With the work on Microsoft Kinect, it could be a natural fit.

Blau said that keyboards and mice won't go away anytime soon -- "maybe in a hundred or few hundred years" -- but that gesture, touch and speech recognition will augment the traditional interfaces.

He said some of the drawbacks with new interfaces is the learning curve that users face. For example, when Palm Pilots were first popularized users needed to learn a special way to enter text on the device, called Graffiti.

Patrick Baudisch, the chair of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at Germany's Hasso Plattner Institute, also doesn't see keyboards and mice disappearing soon, but imagines the form factor may change.

"The holy grail of UI is a [touch] system that produces the tactile properties of a keyboard," he said.

He explained that a touch screen device could have a tactile keyboard appear on demand and noted that the ridges between keys help users type. He said he knew of partial solutions that use membranes filled with transparent fluids and buttons that inflate, but nothing ready for mass market.

"With a little luck, this could be solved in about five years," he said.

Nick Barber covers general technology news in both text and video for IDG News Service. E-mail him at Nick_Barber@idg.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjb.

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