Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) has been taking lots of lumps from some of our Foolish analysts in recent months, for one bad decision after another. Its purchase of British software maker Autonomy has been a big target, but there could be some hidden treasure in that company's product portfolio. One in particular could bring gesture-based computing closer to mass market than anyone expected, and that's great news -- if HP can pull it off.
An ace in the hole?
When I last wrote about Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) efforts to go beyond touchscreens, I thought it represented the current extent of gesture-based interface design. But Autonomy has been working on augmented-reality, or AR, software called Aurasma, which allows its users to gesture at their devices to manipulate the software. No need to touch a touchscreen or scroll a scroll wheel. And there's no proprietary hardware needed -- Aurasma works on Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhones and iPads, as well as Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android phones.
The software's still limited, but more by the AR component than by its interface. Most AR software (Aurasma included) doesn't do anything until a human being tells it what it's looking at and how to react. AR software can become a great companion to gesture-based computing in time, but right now, gestures seem closer to broad acceptance.
Interface, the final frontier
If HP can make Aurasma into something more functional than fun, it could become an integral part of future interface designs, and could develop into a tremendous new revenue stream. Technology that works on mobile devices can (and should) eventually adapt to larger interfaces, which opens up new possibilities for business and recreation. HP will have an uphill battle against Microsoft and its Kinect technology in this regard, but first-mover advantage in interfaces can keep a company on top for decades -- provided the interface is intuitive enough for most.
Augmented reality is itself a major new development in interface design, with Sony (NYSE: SNE ) working on a system that could incorporate real-world objects into next-gen games. Columbia University developed an augmented-reality goggle system for Marine mechanics, which helps them identify complex machinery with helpful pop-up displays over recognized objects. The device, like Aurasma, can work when controlled by an Android phone.
Gesture-based interfaces would be an ideal pairing with AR. Think about the potential to manipulate objects that pop up on displays in response to camera cues. A billboard could offer you an order form with a wave or a nod. Combining sensor technology from jilted iPhone supplier OmniVision Technologies (Nasdaq: OVTI ) with laser projection technology from Microvision (Nasdaq: MVIS ) would be a great way to extend the use of Aurasma-like interfaces. It would help OmniVision expand beyond Apple, and Microvision's advanced imaging systems might finally become profitable. Fool contributor Tim Beyers isn't keen on Microvision, and it remains a highly speculative play. Can the forward-thinking company finally make its solutions accessible to the mass market? HP, Autonomy, and Aurasma could help it get there . . . unless Microsoft gets there first.
It might not take too long to find out if these companies will have the reality of their profits augmented by new interface developments. Add them to your Watchlist now and stay up to date on all their latest technological progress.