Rethink Human-Machine Interaction

Make Interaction Less About Technology Itself, More About Tasks People are Trying to Achieve

By Aaron Hand

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]Though there are undoubtedly engineers out there who are still more comfortable manipulating text-based code than working with a graphical interface, there's no denying that the way we interact with technology is rapidly changing. Typical input and output devices like keyboards and monitors are giving way to multitouch screens, haptic devices and wall-size displays.

This will only increase as generations that have grown up with the newer technologies expect to be able to interact with at-work displays in the same ways they do with their personal devices. "We're already living in an age where we do things differently," said Alok Srivastava, CTO for Microsoft's Premier Americas Services. "Your kids are not using a keyboard and mouse anymore. They're very, very used to touchscreen. We're using our bodies to play games."

There's the video that made the rounds on YouTube of the 1-year-old baby who seemed to see print magazines as iPads that she couldn't get to work. But the future of human-machine interfaces doesn't end with multitouch displays; that's just the tip of the iceberg. Srivastava was at the Honeywell Users Group (HUG) conference last month in Phoenix to present some of the ideas Microsoft has for how that interaction could be made more seamless.

With all the new technologies for input and display that are available today, we face somewhat of a paradox, according to Rohan McAdam, Honeywell engineering fellow, who challenged audience members to keep an open mind to how Microsoft's ideas could be applied to industry. "It's easier than ever to create new user interfaces," he said. "On the other hand, the variety and variability provide more ways of getting it wrong. In some ways it's more difficult, given the technology choices available. You have to know how to use the right technology, the right way, in the right circumstances."

Microsoft has a few visions about which way we could be headed. As technology becomes increasingly woven into our daily lives, the key to those visions is making that interaction not about the technology itself but purely about the tasks that people are trying to achieve. Srivastava identified several trends that are heading us through this transformation, including a computing ecosystem, the explosion of data, cloud computing, pervasive displays, social computing, ubiquitous connectivity, and natural user interfaces.

He showed a video in which Microsoft simulates its vision for the future, involving several scenarios that featured the ability to work seamlessly across platforms. "Security, transaction, collaboration — all of those concepts are put together in a natural way," Srivastava said. "This is the next wave."

To create a more natural user interaction, the keyboard is no longer the best input device. Kinect technology, designed to play games with, is being leveraged as an input device for all kinds of new applications. Surgeons can use the technology for touchless manipulation of images during surgery, when they cannot touch anything because of sanitary reasons. The same could apply in a repair shop, with a worker's greasy hands.

Srivastava shared a couple of inventions that Microsoft is working on. One, Illumishare, is a camera/projector combination that lets two people work or play together remotely. The example involved two people playing cards remotely. Anything could be put within the illuminated field and be projected onto the other remote field. That technology could be combined with Skype or some other communication standard.

The other research-level technology was OmniTouch, a wearable multitouch technology that lets you use pretty much any available surface—hands, arms, legs, books, tables, etc. — as your input and/or display device. "You do not even have the monitor, which means it's just you," Srivastava said. "The possibilities are endless. If that was an environment you could work in, that's something you could use."

These prototypes are far from production, but the point is that the technology is achievable. "The next generation of kids, if you give them a keyboard, they won't even know what to do with it," Srivastava said. "We have to figure out a way to let them work the way they expect to work."