Voice, gestures dominate show

Trying to follow CES breaking news coverage is like that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy is working in a chocolate factory and the conveyor belt carrying the candies keeps moving faster and faster. It's stressful, confounding and, ultimately, can't be done.

Here's a product. Here's another product. Here are 50 products. The quantity of products introduced is expressed in yards, and even football fields.

Did you read the skinny on skinny TVs and skinny laptops? How about phones that control lamps and air conditioners at home? Android gadgets, iPhone accessories and cameras galore. Most of the coverage focused on what gadgets can do, rather than how we interact with them -- which, to me, is the most exciting news.

Missing in all of the coverage was the Big Story of CES this year: The future of human-machine interfaces has arrived at last.

Futurists -- including Yours Truly -- have been predicting for years that the future of all computing and miscellaneous gadgetry involves the addition of these three user interfaces to our desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile phone devices:

1. Multitouch

2. Voice

3. In-the-air gestures

But wait, you say. These interfaces have been around for years. And that's true. But there's a big difference between a technology that's available passively and enjoyed by a few power users, and a technology that's so widespread that it changes culture.

Of course, Apple mainstreamed multitouch interfaces in 1997 with the http://apple.com/iphone. It's attempting to do the same with voice via Siri on the iPhone 4S, with mixed results.

Microsoft has semi-mainstreamed in-the-air gestures with its Kinect for Xbox 360.

But until now, these interface features have been used in a broad way only by users of specific products. Voice command is an iPhone thing, and to a lesser extent an Android thing. In-the-air gestures are an Xbox thing.

The vast majority of phone users, for example, don't use voice commands. Hardly any TV viewers use anything except old-and-busted remote controls. Desktop and laptop PC users mostly use keyboards and mice as the interface between themselves and their online activities.

Let's not underestimate the impact that the new interfaces will have. Instead of "using" devices, as we do now, we're heading toward a world where all our electronics will be so smart that we can interact with them as we do other humans. Computing will become increasingly natural and intuitive, because we'll be able to control our high-tech tools by reaching out and directly manipulating on-screen objects, talking in plain language, or using natural hand gestures and body language.

If CES is any indication, the long-awaited future of ubiquitous next-generation interfaces starts this year. Here's what happened at the show.

1. Multitouch

One of the most innovative products demonstrated was the new Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga. It's a laptop that supports multitouch interaction, but more importantly it has a hinge that makes it especially useful. Thanks to the hinge, users to set up the IdeaPad Yoga in an upside-down V configuration, to support multitouch interaction at an angle. It can also swing all the way around and become a tablet.

The most exciting advancements are those that help bring tablet-like multitouch technology to the desktop.

Lenovo introduced an all-in-one desktop PC called the IdeaCentre A720. If I hadn't switched to Macs recently and wanted to buy a PC, this is the one I would buy. Why? Because it features a super-thin 27-in. screen designed to tilt. It can go from vertical to horizontal, so users can find that multitouch sweet spot.

Even though there was a good deal of recognition of multitouch's potential at the show, it's somewhat shocking that only Lenovo seems to understand the spectacularly obvious reality that PC multitouch isn't going to happen on a vertical screen.

A company called MultiTouch Ltd. unveiled a 55-in. table-like multitouch display called the MT550W7. The display runs Windows, and the vendor's proprietary Computer Vision Through Screen (CVTS) technology allows an unlimited number of fingers to simultaneously touch and use the screen.

Other companies, such as IOGear, NUITEQ, Perceptive Pixel and Corning, also unveiled multitouch products that were neither phones nor tablets.

2. Voice

The early leader in voice command and dictation, Nuance, which I've written about in this space, was everywhere at CES. Nuance is the company behind the Dragon line of voice-recognition software applications, as well as the dictation technology used in Apple's Siri.

Intel announced a partnership with Nuance that would bring voice commands to laptops. Processing would take place locally, optimized by Intel chips, rather than being offloaded to remote servers.

Nuance also rolled out its Dragon TV] platform, which is designed to enable viewers to change channels, find specific shows and even find types of shows by simply talking. Nuance didn't announce any partners, but I'm sure it will have many by next year.

Nuance also announced a 10-year partnership with a company called Gracenote to develop systems that let people use voice commands to find and control music and videos on mobile devices, in cars and on TVs.

Nuance also unveiled an Android version of its Dragon Go app, which had previously been available only on iOS.

But Nuance wasn't the only company talking about speech.

The two largest makers of televisions, Samsung and LG, announced voice-command features that will enable you to talk to your TV and have it do your bidding. These systems replace the remote -- with another remote that's essentially a microphone with a few buttons on it.

Vlingo announced a product for TV makers called Virtual Assistant, which brings voice interaction to television much like Nuance's Dragon TV does.

LG's new Smart Refrigerator also features a voice recognition system. That's right: You can talk to your fridge, and your fridge talks back.

AT&T, Ford, Lenovo, Parrot and several other companies also announced products, technologies and partnerships to bring voice commands to all kinds of devices.

3. In-the-air gestures

Samsung and LG announced new "smart TVs" that, among other things, are capable of responding to gestures. Instead of clicking on a clicker, you talk and wave your arms to change the channel and find programs to watch.

Intel demonstrated laptops that respond to gestures -- a feature that's useful for games and productivity apps alike.

One of the few bits of news in the cringe-inducing keynote by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was a date for the Kinect-for-Windows product I told you about in November: Feb. 1. The new product will enable Windows PC users to use gestures instead of some keyboard-and-mouse inputs.

A Two-Way TV system for Kinect introduced by Ballmer also lets users interact with special TV programs with gestures.

As gadgets get voice and gestures, cars become gadgets. At CES, Audi showed off new gesture-driven interfaces for its cars. Mercedes-Benz talked about a new integrated dash system called DICE (for Dynamic and Intuitive Control Experience) that involves augmented reality with gesture control. Like many of the gesture interfaces, the Audi technology uses a camera and software to interpret hand-waving.

Smaller companies, such as Sharpnow, Ceva and SoftKinetic also introduced new gesture-based technologies.

Meanwhile, while CES was going on, the website Patently Apple reported that Apple filed patents for gesture-based systems that would bring Kinect-like gestures to iOS devices.

To me, CES was not about smart TVs or copycat MacBook Air clones. CES 2012 was the show that ushered in an amazing new future where we will interact with all our electronics by touching, talking and gesturing.

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