While much of the world's attention is focused on tapping out texts and launching Angry Birds, researchers have been busy thinking in three dimensions. At Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , they're already stretching touch beyond the touchscreen, but they might be about to dive into the deep end of user immersion with some radical new ways to interact with your computers. If you thought that the Kinect was a great opportunity, wait till you see what comes next.
You are the touchscreen
Microsoft Research has been so prolific in its progress that I have two innovations to show you. The first is OmniTouch, which is the boldest move yet away from physical devices. I theorized in an earlier article that Microsoft might combine pico projection with sophisticated sensors to create interfaces on any surface, and that's exactly what OmniTouch does. Its key components are a PrimeSense depth camera (part of the Kinect system) and a Microvision (Nasdaq: MVIS ) pico projector. A picture's worth 1,000 words, so let's take a look at the device in action:
Source: Microsoft Research.
Don't get too worked up about buying one just yet -- the device's major drawback is that it's shoulder-mounted and still too cumbersome for most people. But considering all the progress made in miniaturization over the years, there's no reason to expect it to remain bulky and impractical forever.
Beams of opportunity
This is a big leap, not only for interface design but for pico projection manufacturers as well, including Microvision and Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) . Optimistic manufacturers expect projector sales to top 22 million in 2014, up from about 700,000 last year. That number might get left in the dust as the technology improves and further integrates with "anywhere" interfaces like OmniTouch.
Even Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) could get into the game, as its 2010 patent application for a networked projection system came to light this August, and it appears to be a very complete concept. Apple and Microsoft might wind up duking it out for interface supremacy with wildly different weapons, since Apple's designs appear to rely on devices rather than surfaces. Microvision could benefit either way, as its pico-focused portfolio contains more than 500 patents (and patents pending).
Step into the Holodesk
Microsoft Research isn't stopping with OmniTouch. Its push into user immersion also includes the Star Trek-ish-named Holodesk, which pairs the Kinect with a mirrored display system to allow users to interact with 3-D objects in real time. Think of it almost as augmented reality for the real world. You can take a look at the device in action on YouTube. It looks like an ideal technology for video gaming, and it might be what Microsoft needs to seal its victory over Sony's Playstation 3. That's still a way off, until Microsoft can get the system to work without a mirrored enclosure.
Other applications that might not need such mirror-less freedom could include 3-D design. The Kinect's 3-D scanning capabilities would pair well, and users could manipulate the objects with their hands like clay before working on the minuscule details on an old-fashioned screen. Autodesk (Nasdaq: ADSK ) might want to send out some feelers to Redmond about a partnership if the Holodesk gets closer to production, as they offer several of the most popular 3-D design programs.
It seems like only yesterday that our computers were just beige boxes waiting for us at home. Who knows what shape they might take tomorrow? Add these companies to your Watchlist to keep track of their progress toward an immersive future. It might get here before you know it.