The next big thing on the Web may have nothing at all to do with the Web itself, but, rather, how we interact with it. The shrinking sizes of our mobile screens — combined with the growing number of things that we are asking these tiny screens to do — is leading to a massive wave of new innovation in new human-computer interfaces. If the desktop Web gave us the mouse, the mobile Web gave us the touch screen, then the next generation of tiny screens and mobile devices may give us the gesture-based interface, where our hands and fingers are able to manipulate the Web in 3D.
The latest entrant in the new area of gesture-based interfaces is Leap Motion’s Leap 3D Motion Control System, which promises to be 100 times more accurate than the previous darling of the tech crowd — Microsoft’s Kinect motion-gaming device. In short, with the Leap, you use your hands and fingers to do all the things that you already do online, such as browsing the Web and zooming in on maps. Then there are things that seem a bit beyond the needs of the average user, such as manipulating 3D data visualization models in real-time. As Leap Motion CEO Michael Buckwald told CNET on May 20, the goal is nothing less than to "fundamentally transform how people interact with their operating systems or browse the Web." To make this possible, Leap creates a 3D workspace of four cubic feet around the user. Without touching a screen or any external device, you are able to manipulate objects in 3D.
To give a sense of how these new types of gesture-based interfaces could power a new wave of innovation on the Web, consider how hackers radically transformed the way ordinary people could use Microsoft’s Kinect. The device, which started as a game controller for Microsoft’s popular Xbox, became an extraordinarily powerful tool for creating new types of experiences. As the Post’s Hayley Tsukayama wrote in Dec. 2010: “Those with the know-how are producing everything from ways to make the Kinect play air hockey and air guitar to coming up with a game to help deaf children learn American Sign Language.” It even got to the point where doctors were coming up with Kinect-inspired hacks for the touch-free viewing of medical scans.
What remains to be seen is whether Leap can live up to its initial hype, especially in light of recent surveys showing a growing fatigue with motion-gaming devices. However, Leap Motion appears to have made some smart, initial choices such as pricing the product within the reach of most Internet users ($69.99) and working with third-party developers for apps. In the same way that hackers radically re-invented the Kinect, these same developers could find out-of-the-box uses for the Leap.
Ultimately, the future of human-computer interaction may not be bigger keyboards, more elaborate pinch-zoom maneuvers for tiny screens, or an evolutionary disposition to smaller thumbs — the future may be an entirely new paradigm for how we interact with our devices that doesn’t require the user to touch anything. If you’ve ever seen Tom Cruise in the science fiction movie “Minority Report,” the concept behind the Leap is intuitively obvious — there’s something exciting and incredibly futuristic about being able to manipulate data, maps and content in 3D space.
As the Post’s Emi Kolawole pointed out last year, science fiction has always been an enormously powerful construct for imagining the future. Technologies like the hologram and the tricorder are just two examples of science fiction technologies that have already attracted mainstream attention in 2012. Yes, America’s tech innovators are at their best when they are able to transform the science fiction and magic of the Hollywood big screen into innovative ways for interacting with our digital devices.