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As I've mentioned before, I believe the pace of technological change is accelerating. It's easy to identify an improvement in computing capability, but another aspect of technology experience undergoing rapid change is the humble user interface. We started with keystrokes, chased after a mouse pointer, and got tickled by touchscreens. If Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) has its way, you might soon be interacting with computers in a way that's so advanced it'll seem like a child's first steps after a short lifetime of crawling.
Give me touch beyond touch
Microsoft's prolific research department recently partnered with Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) and the University of Washington to develop a touchscreen that doesn't stop where the touchscreen ends. The tablet-sized device, dubbed Portico, utilizes two cameras attached to arms that fold out from the sides. The cameras effectively increase usable area sixfold, registering movements of hands and objects all around the flat surface of the tablet.
The design of the tablet has obvious flaws, but it's important to remember that this is just a first step. It would be silly to expect the average consumer to cart around a tablet with easily broken appendages, but cameras and motion sensors have been embedded into all sorts of objects before. Microsoft's Kinect has had keyboards clacking since its release about an inevitable Minority Report-style interface, using gestures in a 3-D space to manipulate your files and programs. Microsoft knows sensors, and it makes sense to make use of that expertise as it refines its tablet design.
Can't talk about Wintel without talking about...
This partnership of old pals brings to mind the old rivalries between the Wintel computing monopoly and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , which has found its groove as a purveyor of ultra-hip portable devices. Apple has itself been experimenting with radical new interfaces, but it has yet to come forth with an idea that promises to go beyond the screen.
Programming to respond to three dimensions of input is undoubtedly far more complex than making things work on a flat screen. As such, first-mover advantage here could lock up the space for a while, provided the first movers offer their target audience an intuitive interface. Apple's recent iPhone stumble could be the first crack in a widening chasm between touch and beyond touch. If the Wintel juggernaut is smart, it'll stick a crowbar in and start prying.
Expanding the playing field
The primacy of cameras and other motion sensors could send a few specialty manufacturers to new heights. OmniVision (Nasdaq: OVTI ) is already an attractive buy, and it provides sensor technology for cameras in millions of Apple devices. Marvell (Nasdaq: MRVL ) creates camera controllers for the Kinect, which could serve as a prototype for more portable motion sensors from Microsoft.
Fool contributor Anders Bylund has taken a similarly long-term view on the state of mobile computing, going all the way to 2015 to give those of us stuck in 2011 a glimpse of the future. I have to say that some of his predictions look all the more attainable in light of this new tablet development, and I will be watching Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) and MicroVision (Nasdaq: MVIS ) for possible integration with a sensor-based interface. Both companies make projection technology, and in a system built on sensing movement rather than reacting to touch, the importance of the device will ultimately recede as its interface adapts to any surface.
The future is coming faster than you think, so add these companies to your watchlist today so you can stay on top of all the latest developments in mobile computing and beyond.