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Move Over, Minority Report

by hambling on January 22, 2007

I guess I’m the last person on the Web to learn about Jeff Han’s straight-outta–Minority Report multi-touch screens. But add me to the just about endless list of folks who find the displays beyond cool — almost like a dream about how computers should look and act. (Here’s a video of Han and the screens in action.)
In this month’s Fast Company, Defense Tech pal Adam Penenberg has the lowdown on how the screens came to be — and where we might see them in the future. Not surprisingly, the Defense Department is extremely interested. Here’s a snip from Adam’s story:

Suppressing a smile, Han told the assembled brain trust that he rejects the idea that “we are going to introduce a whole new generation of people to computing with the standard keyboard, mouse, and Windows pointer interface.” Scattering and collecting photos like so many playing cards, he added, “This is really the way we should be interacting with the machines.” Applause rippled through the room. Someone whistled. Han began to feel a little bigger.
But he was far from finished. Han pulled up a two-dimensional keyboard that floated slowly across the screen. “There is no reason in this day and age that we should be conforming to a physical device,” he said. “These interfaces should start conforming to us.” He tapped the screen to produce dozens of fuzzy white balls, which bounced around a playing field he defined with a wave of the hand. A flick of a finger pulled down a mountainous landscape derived from satellite data, and Han began flying through it, using his fingertips to swoop down from a global perspective to a continental one, until finally he was zipping through narrow slot canyons like someone on an Xbox. He rotated his hands like a clock’s, tilting the entire field of view on its axis–an F16 in a barrel roll. He ended his nine-minute presentation by drawing a puppet, which he made dance with two fingers.

But Han is doing more than just designing the next generation of computer interfaces. He’s also got a pair of contracts with Darpa…

…including one involving visual odometry: Modeling his work on the brain of a honeybee, Han has been looking for ways to make a computer know where it has been and where it is going — part of an attempt to build a flying camera that would be able to find its way over long distances. Han has also made it to the second round of a DARPA project to create an autonomous robot vehicle that can traverse terrain by learning from its own experiences. The goal: to perfect an unmanned ground combat vehicle that could operate over rough trails, in jungles or desert sand, or weave through heavy traffic as if it had a skilled driver behind the wheel.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

reefdiver January 23, 2007 at 8:42 am

“There is no reason in this day and age that we should be conforming to a physical device,” he said. “These interfaces should start conforming to us.”
Indeed, but for much of what we do the keyboard is still much better - even if we should all be using the Dvorak keyboard instead of the QUERTY keyboard that was actually designed to slow typing down to avoid mechanical jamming. Touch screens have been around for a very long time. The use of them SHOULD evolve. However, various other forms of control actually provide for better fine-motor muscle control. Arms waving in space just aren’t that easy to precisely control, whereas arms resting on an armrest with only the wrist controlling a joystick or mouse is extremely precise. The application described may in fact may be better served by a Wii game console controller than a touch screen. Its much more innovative. Nonetheless, I slightly disagree with the statement listed above. I believe the human interface should be suited to the task.


sglover January 23, 2007 at 10:21 am

Sweet! I’ve long thought an environment like that would be terrific for really ambitious software development.


Dr. Curiosity January 23, 2007 at 3:22 pm

It’s times like this that I wish I had his research budget :-) I developed a somewhat more primitive version of this interface for my CompSci Masters thesis as a solo project. Given a decent budget for materials and electrical engineering expertise, this kind of setup would be remarkably easy to make for someone with a background in computer vision software.
Of course, the real “magic” as far as the user is concerned is in making it a usable, natural interface - if you can do that, the method by which it’s being enabled should just melt into the background.


Dennis January 24, 2007 at 9:09 am

The military application is great, but apply a bit of SimCity software and you have the ultimate state/city planning device.
If they wee to use somting like this I would not be stopped in traffic in the fast lane because they forgot to take into consideration the size of the roads when building the 30 aprtment complexed they just put up in one square mile.


Brian January 24, 2007 at 2:07 pm

Ah, Dennis, city planners who think? Now you’re talking about science fiction. ;)


Ferocious_Imbecile January 24, 2007 at 3:00 pm

Touching a screen???Fingerprints on my screen???


FireFly January 26, 2007 at 1:29 pm

I believe this technology was demonstrated - albeit on a much smaller scale — at this year’s MacWorld by Steve Jobs operating the soon-to-be released ApplePhone/iPhone cell/PDA/iPOD unit. It looks even better when ported to the big screen, although my rotator cuff will be getting quite a workout!


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