Here Comes the Parade of Computing Interfaces That Want to Replace the Touchscreen

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Over the next six months or so, we're going to see an explosion of new ways of interacting with computers, televisions, and mobile devices.

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The Leap Motion controller next to an iPhone 4S. Look how tiny that thing is. And it weighs almost nothing. (Alexis C. Madrigal)

The interfaces are coming! Over the next six months or so, we're going to see an explosion of new ways of interacting with computers, televisions, and mobile devices. Many of them are radical departures from the way things have been done, which is exciting. I'll run several down in this post that are slated to come out this year. 

Almost all of them will fail quickly and be forgotten forever. But there's a chance that one of these new technologies will hit a consumer sweetspot and become enshrined in our lives like the remote control or the keyboard. 

For decades after the creation of the graphical-user interface and the widespread adoption of the mouse, the computing interaction paradigm was largely static. You had a keyboard and a pointer on the screen that you controlled in some way, usually a mouse, but sometimes a touchpad or pointing stick (aka "red nubby thing on old Thinkpads").

Try as people might, and people like Microsoft's Bill Buxton have archived the evidence that they did, people liked the basic computing setup. It was fast and accurate, familiar and decently intuitive. 

But the iPhone -- and the brilliant iOS software and declining multi-touch display prices -- cracked that computing paradigm wide open. And for the last half a decade, touchscreens have more or less taken over for mobile computing. At the same time, gesture interfaces from Nintendo and Microsoft in the gaming space exploded, marking a serious move away from the traditional controller for non-hardcore gamers.

That's given a lot of new hardware interface designers hope, not to mention a plausible story to tell venture capitalists. Add a dash of Kickstarter funding and Sergey Brin's interest and you have an explosion of new possibilities. Here are five that I've noticed. What's fascinating is that all are slated to be out this year:

  • The Leap Motion control system took preorders last year and just announced they'll be shipping in May. I've played with a Leap system and I found it fun and interesting. I'm not sure it will replace your touchscreen or laptop input devices, but at $79, it seems worth trying out. The Leap uses cameras to track your motion, but they say the actual secret sauce is in the math that allows them to do that tracking at very high speed and resolution.
  • Thalmic Labs has a different approach. They give you an armband that tracks the electrical signals in your muscles. 
  • Google Glass relies on a pure voice interface hooked to a small transparent screen. The Verge's Joshua Topolsky got to try a pair out and wrote up a fascinating essay about the exercise.
  • Then there's the Mycestro, which is billed as a "3D wearable mouse." It consists of a big ring that you put on your index finger, which tracks your finger movements in space, allowing you to execute the basic functions of computing. The device's creator has raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter.
  • While it's easy to focus on new products, some of the most exciting work is coming in how people use and hack the Kinect. At least one analyst thinks that it will be the explosion of new uses for the Kinect that will lead the gesture control disruption.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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