Could a Gesture-Based UI Unlock Windows 8's True Potential?
For an IT community that has so far been hesitant to add touch-based monitors to the enterprise, a solution for unlocking Windows 8's true potential could lie in Microsoft's Kinect hardware.
We all know them: The fingerprints people. I'm not talking about your average print-phobic individual; nobody really enjoys looking through a smudgy monitor. I'm referring to the haters.
You've surely experienced their wrath on some support call. An accidental touch on the monitor they've kept so perfectly clean, and you've got one of the angriest of users on your hands.
It's this high-decibel cadre -- alongside everyone else's fingerprint distaste -- that has me confused about the new touch monitors for Windows 8.
A Monitor Is Not a Tablet
Love it or hate it, the Windows 8 "touch-first experience" is arguably one of the most different aspects of the new OS. Those of us lacking the proper hardware are merely getting by with keyboard shortcuts until we can find -- and afford -- the proper new interfacing technology.
After having interviewed dozens of Windows 8 early adopters, it's become my opinion that "proper" new technology isn't likely to involve monitor glass. Why? Primarily because the relationship between you and your desktop -- or even laptop -- monitor isn't the same as the relationship between you and your tablet.
Tablets are by nature dirty things. You peek at them on crowded subways. You get the news on them in bedrooms, bathrooms and conference rooms, sometimes in that order. You prop them up in the kitchen, seeking recipes that fit the ingredients found in refrigerators and freezers.
Relationships with tablets are personal, some might say biblical. That relationship bears no resemblance to the somewhat-standoffish rapport that's been established with traditional monitors. In the desktop/laptop world, the monitor does its job and you do yours, and never the two shall meet.
Touch Without Touching
I introduce this argument against an otherwise-impressive display technology because those I've interviewed can't seem to assimilate touching and monitors into their greater worldview.
A workable solution, however, appears to be on the horizon. Toss the words "Windows 8 touchless gesture" into your favorite search provider, and you'll find a growing ecosystem attempting to create that exact intermediary: the empty space between you and your monitor.
These devices bring to mind the now-classic "Minority Report" use case, as well as more than a few episodes of "CSI: Miami." Touchless-gesture control offers what might be the picture-perfect interface for an otherwise-maligned Windows 8 UI. What's more exciting is that the technologies to accomplish it appear almost ready for prime time.
Not unsurprisingly, different companies are using different approaches for solving the problem. The Israel-based company PointGrab has partnered with Acer and Fujitsu for a software solution that tracks hand movement with existing 2D camera equipment. A Norwegian company, Elliptic Labs, uses ultrasound microphones in place of the traditional camera approach. A third option, the USB-connected Leap Motion controller, offers "eight cubic feet of awesome, intuitive, 3D interaction space" at a preorder price of $69.99.
Something Called Kinect?
These technologies also raise a question: "Doesn't Microsoft already have this?" Indeed, Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 was one of the world's first consumer-ready touchless gesture devices, but its camera was designed for a living room and not the near-field space between human and monitor.
Shockingly, Microsoft sells a close-in Kinect variant named Kinect for Windows, but this hardware arrives as a neutered shadow of its popular Xbox cousin. For some unknown reason, Kinect for Windows ships with zero usable software and only an SDK to develop against. Seriously, Microsoft? What gives?
The more time I spend with Windows 8, the more I realize its UI controversy exists because the experience hasn't been made whole. A touch-first Windows 8 sans touch is an annoying experience replete with keyboard workarounds. That same OS with touch isn't much better once fingerprints get in the way.
Perhaps it won't be until Windows 8 finally mates with a proper touchless- gesture technology that we'll see Microsoft's vision in its totality. For now, just hold off on buying any monitors. Your fingers will thank me later.
Greg Shields is a senior partner and principal technologist with Concentrated Technology. He also serves as a contributing editor and columnist for TechNet Magazine and Redmond magazine, and is a highly sought-after and top-ranked speaker for live and recorded events. Greg can be found at numerous IT conferences such as TechEd, MMS and VMworld, among others, and has served as conference chair for 1105 Media’s TechMentor Conference since 2005. Greg has been a multiple recipient of both the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and VMware vExpert award.