I once was a five feet two inch (1.57 meter), 98 pound (44 kilogram) weakling. Without a doubt, I was a wimp, complete with black plastic eyeglass frames and the stereotypical thick lenses. In my defense, I was ten years old, and the only sand I saw kicked around was in the grade school playground.
Over forty years later, I still wear glasses with thick lenses, albeit with designer metal frames, and I remain a wimpy guy. No, I'm not getting shaken down for lunch money in the Microsoft cafeteria by master programmers. I am alluding to something more worrisome, namely that we are all wimpy, due to our continuing dependence on the Windows, Icon, Menu and Pointing Device (WIMP) computer interaction model.
Since the WIMP model was developed for the seminal Xerox Alto in 1973, and then re-implemented for the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, it has remained the predominate method of human computer interaction. PCs, tablets, smartphones and even most games continue to rely on variations of this technology, though it has morphed and evolved in many ways. The longevity of the WIMP metaphor is testimony to its elegance and utility, but also (perhaps) to our limited envisioning of newer and more powerful interaction models.
From GUI to NUI
It is time move beyond graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and embrace the brave new world of natural user interfaces (NUIs). As the name suggests, a NUI relies on and exploits the kinds of interactions humans use to interact with their peers, including speech, vision and gesture, as well as mood and social context. Rather than forcing the human user to adapt to the interaction limitations of the computing system, natural interfaces adapt the computing system to human interaction modes.
Today's multi-touch displays are perhaps the simplest and most widely deployed element of NUIs, allowing finger gestures on touch sensitive surfaces at multiple scales, ranging from mobile phones (e.g., the Apple iPhone) through PCs with Windows7 to large devices such as Microsoft Surface. In turn, Microsoft's Project Natal NUI for the Xbox 360 presages a new generation NUIs that exploit full body gestures and spoken commands. More broadly, the creation of NUIs relies on many years of human factors and artificial intelligence research, as well as advances in algorithms and inexpensive, though powerful, sensors, actuators and multicore processors.
Adoption of such NUIs also implies a continuing shift in our perspective, from a world where computing was expensive and scarce to one where computing is inexpensive and plentiful. As anyone who has ever spent hours studying a line printer listing to find program errors or spent weeks squeezing precious cycles from a computational simulation knows, we have historically spent prodigious amounts of human time and energy optimizing the use of limited computing resources.
That worldview shifted with the PC, when computing became sufficiently inexpensive that machines could remain idle much of the time. Today, when computing is even more inexpensive and plentiful, one can be profligate in expending computing resources to simplify human interaction.
Computing on Behalf
A plethora of computing brings a second and equally transformative opportunity, a shift from computing on demand to computing on behalf – anticipatory computing. Today, most of our computing devices sit idle unless we – quite literally – poke them. They do little or nothing unless we explicitly demand a response (e.g., by entering a search query or launching an application). If a human assistant were that unproductive, they would not last long in today's research or business environments.
In contrast, a productive human co-worker or assistant anticipates requests and begins activities in the expectation that the results will soon be needed. By analogy, computing on behalf would launch speculative activities based on context and user behavior, enriching and empowering its users. Simply put, we want our computing systems to make us smarter and more productive than we would be otherwise.
Hit the Innovation Gym
It's time for us to take charge of computing's future and stop being WIMPs. It will take concerted effort and innovation to create anticipatory NUIs. However, as they say in the gym, "No pain, no gain." No steroids and no artificial stimulants either – it's the natural way. Now if I could just do something about the thick glasses.