Of Mice and Men: The Rise of the New Computer Interface

At this week’s E3 tradeshow, Microsoft unveiled the really startling Kinect. After its progressive sneak peaks of the past year (under the code name Project Natal), the Kinect is now poised to be a milestone not only in how people use their Xbox 360s, but how consumers think about computer interfaces in general.

Without spiraling into one of my patented ‘we’re headed for the Singularity‘ monologues, it is objectively amazing how quickly the perception of what a computer interface is has changed over the past three years…let alone twenty. Here’s a good chronology on how the world has gone from the PARC GUI to a post-WIMP world.

The point of no return
The transition from command line interface to a mouse-driven world was immensely significant. It changed our relationship to our computers (as we discovered we even HAD a relationship.) Most popularly introduced with the first Apple computers, the mouse shifted our focus from the keyboard and a programming mentality to one of an “I want that” point-and-click paradigm. (Can you imagine the Web ever evolving without a mouse?!) It is irrefutable how that fundamental transition impacted not only productivity, but also the consumer’s adoption of the PC.

That mouse-driven interface has been the defacto standard for nearly 30 years now. Continued exploration into voice control has brought some greater freedom into basic controls, but not until the advent of the touch screen has there really been a challenge to the dominance of the mouse. (Sorry, stylus.)

It’s a touch screen world
We are up to our knuckles in touch screens now. Think of all the places you see touch screens daily. From smartphones and GPS units to ATMs and virtually every self-serve kiosk on the planet, the intuitive finger gesture is actively replacing the mouse. As Steve Jobs trumpeted during the rollout of the iPhone and MultiPoint technology, the finger is our natural computer control. (I always remember the way the crowd gasped when they saw the zooming “pinch” for the first time.)

Peripheral pointing devices are going the way of the dodo. And now, even in the microcosm of gaming systems, the breakthrough concept of using your body as the ultimate joystick popularized by the Playstation EyeToy and Nintendo Wii, stands to be supplanted by Microsoft’s Kinect. In the most dramatic manifestation of our natural anatomy as an interface device, the Kinect puts our entire body (including our voice) in control. Imagine this relationship to our computers and TVs (soon to be the same device), home system controls, our cars, public transportation, in-person shopping. Anywhere you need to interact with information.

This is all in concert with the evolution of the display. Screens are getting bigger. They’re getting infinitely thinner. And they’re becoming architectural fixtures more than just desktop anchors. We’re on the cusp of walls and countertops becoming portals to data. Of being immersed in information in three-dimensional space. Soon, if models like Kinect take hold, the need of an actual touch surface is obsoleted. The very air around us becomes the substrate of interaction.

These type of advancements stand to have far-reaching impact on how we, as technology marketers, relate to computer users and how we get people to interact with our ads (let’s see what the iAds truly bring to the game.) It also stands to permanently return the mouse to status of rodent and hero of the occasional children’s book.

Here’s some bonus viewing on what interfaces may look like soon:

The progenitor of the iPhone and the Microsoft Surface:

Portable touch surfaces:

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