'Natural User Interface' Arrives at Davos Forum

Microsoft plans to show off advances in user interface technologies to attendees of the World Economic Forum this week.

Microsoft is holding a little "show and tell" this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland by demonstrating its views of how users will interact with computers in the future.

Although many technologists are familiar with the concepts that make up what is generally referred to as "natural user interface" (NUI) -- technologies such as natural-language processing, multi-touch displays, and 3D sensors -- the public at large is much less savvy, but could potentially gain a lot, according to a survey that Microsoft just completed.

"A recent poll we conducted of about 6,000 people across six countries showed how nascent NUI is: Only about half of the respondents were familiar with the various emerging dimensions of NUI, such as 3D simulation technology. Yet nearly 90 percent of all audiences view natural and intuitive technologies as more than a fad," Steve Clayton, a Microsoft editor said in a post to The Official Microsoft Blog on Wednesday.

The view that technology will become not only ubiquitous but also nearly invisible in coming years, coupled with new and emerging ways to interact with computers, has been a Microsoft vision for two decades, starting with Microsoft co-founder and still chairman Bill Gates.

Among the demonstrations in Davos, the company will show off several of its most recent products -- including its Kinect 3D motion sensor, Windows Phone 7 with its multi-touch screen, and the new thinner version of the Surface multi-touch table computer.

Other technologies likely to come into play are high-quality image recognition systems and holographic displays.

"By combining sensory inputs with the knowledge of what you're trying to do (contextual awareness), where you are and what is around you (environmental awareness), 3D simulation and anticipatory learning, we can foresee a future where technology becomes almost invisible," Clayton said.

"Seventy percent of those polled believe natural and intuitive technology can help improve health care, education, workplace productivity and other societal issues," Clayton added. There are many areas for synergy.

For instance, Kinect was designed merely as a controller-less games controller for the Xbox 360 console. However, engineering students at the University of Washington recently adapted it to provide force feedback technology for doctors using robotic surgical instruments.

Indeed, Microsoft has already signaled that it will create ways to link Kinect into Windows, making it possible to control a PC with gestures and voice commands.

"These benefits are not some far-off pipedream. Even in this early phase, we see amazing ways in which 'natural' can be applied to solve real-world problems," Clayton said.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @stuartj1000.

Tags: user interface, Microsoft, enterprise software, 3D, Kinect

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