Show your mouse the finger

In 1999 director Steven Spielberg assembled a team of 15 of the world’s leading futurologists and scientists and tasked them with creating a plausible vision of what life would be like in the year 2054. The best ideas were picked and used in the film Minority Report.

If you’ve seen that film you’ll likely remember a number of cool futuristic gadgets and technologies that make up Spielberg’s future world – jetpacks, robots, hologram films – there’s a lot to look forward to in 2054.

However, we may not have to wait that long to experience what I personally thought was the most memorable of futuristic technologies in the film – the computer which Tom Cruise fully controls with his hands, grabbing windows and physically pushing them around the display in order to navigate through the information. You can watch a clip of it here.

This immersive interface seemed not only stylish, but also an intuitive and practical way to interact with the virtual assets of a computer. Not for futuristic Tom Cruise the clunky old interface of a mouse. In the future it seems there’ll be no more pointing and clicking and we won’t be using the proxy of a cursor to do our on-screen bidding. Instead we’ll be taking an altogether more hands on approach – using natural gestures of our hands and fingers to zoom round files.

For a film that is all about seeing the future, it seems Minority Report was suitably prescient, and of course interfaces like this are no longer purely science fiction. When Apple introduced multi-touch for the iPhone in 2007 we all moved a step closer to this kind of control. Although it’s on quite a small scale, the touch screen interface of the iPhone has removed cursors and buttons from the interaction and replaced them with simple finger controls. Flicks, taps, and twirls of the fingers on the screen can activate a myriad of controls, and lets users manipulate content in a way that comes naturally.

As well as Apple’s efforts, there’s been a general swell of touch screen technologies which progress gestural interfaces, and the last week has seen some significant technology releases in this area.

First, the Palm Pre – the so called ‘iPhone Killer’ – has been released in the UK, and picks up where the iPhone left off. In our office, Mariette is already the proud owner of one of these phones, and has been enthusiastic in showing off the touch screen controls. For the Pre, gestures are all important. Not only can applications be slid around screen, or even flicked off it if they are no longer needed, but gestural controls have also moved off the screen to areas where buttons once were. Pushing your finger over certain areas of the body of the phone reveals menus or applications on the screen. This makes using the phone very uncomplicated and tactile.

Secondly, Windows 7 has been launched with much fanfare. It seems that many improvements have been made over Vista, but there’s an interesting feature added to the operating system which hasn’t yet received much attention. A touch screen pack has been created which allows Windows to be run effectively on touch screen enabled PCs. This pack adds in a number of gestural controls which normal mouse users don’t have access to, such as flicking to scroll quickly through pages, zooming with a familiar pinch movement, and rotating objects by circling two fingers around each other. You can see examples here.

What this pack indicates is that big players like Microsoft are seriously planning for a future where touch screen and gesture controls are much more common. This raises questions about how desktop PCs will be designed and arranged in the future, and there’s already a great deal of thought going into this (see here for an example). For anyone designing user interfaces at the moment, however, I think there are more immediate considerations.

Even before PCs become completely gesture controlled, users are going to become familiar with and reliant on these simple movements to navigate through their virtual world, and traditional interfaces will begin to feel cumbersome in comparison. It already seems elaborate to point and click through something like a photo album on a PC, when the same can be done on a touch screen device with a flick of the finger. It’s the job of good interface designers to start trying to transition the simplicity and fluidity of these new gestural commands to the interfaces they are designing now, and not wait till we’re zooming round on jet packs in 2054.