If you use the internet, you’ve probably seen video demos of new, experimental computer interface devices. The first one to make the rounds way back in 2006 was Jeff Han’s multi-touch display demo. I still consider this the gold standard, both for presentation and for the technology itself. The video is short, blazing through about a dozen applications with no voiceover commentary. This clip also holds a special place in my heart because it was the first video I watched on YouTube, about three years ago. Man, those were the days.
Like the multi-touch, two more recent interface gadgets have gained popularity after being demoed at the TED conference. The first to make the rounds was Siftables, an attempt to free the computer from the two-dimensional confines of a screen by breaking it up into a handful of postage stamp-sized screens, which you then arrange on a two-dimensional surface. But the blocks talk to each other! And they have tilt sensors! Basically they’re the lovechild of a Wiimote and a Tamagotchi. The technology is interesting, but it’s definitely not ready for primetime. The applications shown in the video illustrate what the Siftables are capable of, but in no way revolutionized human-computer interfaces the way the multi-touch demo did. Maybe after a few more years in the lab these could be marketable, but don’t talk to me until they can at least move around on their own. What good is a swarm of minicomputers if you have to arrange them yourself?
The other interface demoed last month at TED was Sixth Sense. This technology is the most mobile experimental interface system I’ve seen so far. It consists of a webcam and a mini-projector, hanging around the operator’s neck in the ultimate display of nerd bling. The projector can display information onto any surface, and the user operates it with hand gestures that the camera captures. It’s still in very early stages of development, but some things about it are big gamechangers. I’m a big fan of integrating displays/information/etc into real life. There have been demos of “augmented reality” before, but they’ve been of a very different nature–seeming to adhere more closely to the science fiction ideas of computer interfaces (i.e. goggles, etc). Sixth Sense is a very creative concept, and while most of the applications they demoed were more whimsical than practical, the underlying technology represents a dramatic shift in how computers fit into the world around us. By simply moving the information into meatspace, computers become social, as opposed to personal, tools. Final note: the word “computer” is beginning to sound very dated. I guess that’s just one of the final steps toward total ubiquity of a technology.