Innovation

​Microsoft is researching virtual interfaces to replace the keyboard and mouse

Microsoft has been conducting practical research in tracking precise hand movements that will be used to create virtual interfaces that can be applied to just about anything.

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Image: Microsoft News

The standard keyboard and mouse interface is tough to beat when you are talking about efficiency while interfacing with a computer. It is one of the reasons I have been dubious about virtual and augmentation devices like Oculus Rift and Microsoft's HoloLens becoming standard hardware in a business environment. It has been difficult for me to see how these devices could be used for anything beyond entertainment—until now.

Potential

In a Microsoft Blog post, published on June 26, 2016, Allison Linn described some of the research being conducted by several teams at the company and the potential each has for business purposes. What caught my attention were the practical applications the researchers envisioned for virtual interfaces that move beyond unwieldly headsets.

The key to the next generation of virtual interfaces is the hand. More specifically, the ability of computers and other devices to detect precise hand movements. Imagine changing the volume or changing the channel on your television with a virtual interface instead of the universal remote, which is probably dirty with Cheetos powder and other grime too horrible to mention.

The beauty of this approach is that there is no need for headsets or other wearable hardware. The button you push virtually is represented in an overlay on your television screen. This harkens back to the technology established by the Microsoft Kinect and extends it into a different direction.

This technology also takes advantage of human nature and our already established affinity for knobs, switches, levers, and buttons. While the virtual interface Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report looks cool on film, it also looks specialized to his fictional profession. The virtual interfaces being hashed out by Microsoft researchers are concentrating on simple interactions that won't require learning a complicated set of hand motions.

SEE: Beyond Minority Report: Why William Gibson's Neuromancer points to the future of UI

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Image: Microsoft News
Business

The simplicity of a virtual interface that tracks hand movement has me thinking this may actually be an interface that can replace the keyboard and mouse, depending on the circumstances, of course.

I can imagine a situation where factory machinery running critical functions could be monitored and/or adjusted virtually by an experienced expert in another room, another building, or in another country. As long as you can see the monitors and the measurements and make the precise adjustments with that virtual knob or that virtual lever, do you really need to be there?

If such virtual precision can be achieved, it could change the way businesses construct factories. It could decrease the potential for injuries and in turn reduce liability insurance, saving businesses lots of money in the process. Now, that is something businesses can understand and appreciate, which makes virtual reality of this kind all the more viable.

Job description: Virtual reality designer (Tech Pro Research)

Bottom line

After reading about some of the practical research on virtual interfaces going on inside Microsoft, I am starting to come around to the idea that this is a thing to watch for in the future. Sure, these virtual interfaces won't be ready for 2016, but the day they become commonplace is closer than you might think. It will be interesting to see what Microsoft and other companies working on similar research can produce.

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Your thoughts

Would you like to live in a world with a virtual TV remote? I think I would. Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members.

About Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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