My favorite computer interface has to be the fictional one used by Tom Cruise in the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report (based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick). In the movie, Cruise plays a time cop who is part of a team that prevents murders by predicting them in advance and arresting the future perpetrators.

What has always fascinated me about the movie is the computer interface the cops use to do their investigations — it’s a huge holographic screen that hangs in the air in front of the user, who interacts with it using virtual-reality gloves. Here’s a screen shot from the movie that will give you an idea:

Computer interface from Minority Report

The exciting news for me comes from a TED Talks video from February 2010 showing a lecture by John Underkoffler of the MIT Tangible Media Group (“John Underkoffler points to the future of UI“), who was science advisor for Minority Report. He and colleagues designed the interfaces that appeared in the film.

Underkoffler has some fascinating things to say about how interfaces are evolving. He tells how the design work was done for Minority Report — the design for the computer interfaces was done as a real R&D project.

But most exciting is that Underkoffler and colleagues are actually developing the real thing — the “spatial operating environment” as he calls it — and he was able to demonstrate it during his talk. Here’s a still of his demo from the video:

John Underkoffler demonstrates UI

During his talk he says:

Much of what we want computers to help us with in the first place is inherently spatial, and the part that isn’t spatial can often be ‘spatialized’ to allow our wetware to make better sense of it.

A spatialized interaction model, he believes, improves our computing experience, as it aligns better with the way our brains work.

During the talk, Underkoffler demonstrates a logistics application his team is developing that combines structured data with 3D geographical mapping. He also shows how a spatial operating environment might be used for media manipulation and editing.

Very soon, Underkoffler says, “this stuff will be built into the bezel of every display, it’ll be built into architecture.”

At the end of the presentation, the host asks the big question: “When? … In your mind, five years’ time, someone can buy this as part of a standard computer interface?”

Underkoffler replies, “I think in five years’ time, when you buy a computer, you’ll get this.”

The fist “killer app” for the spatial operating environment? “At the moment, our early adopter customers — and these systems are deployed out in the real world — do all the big data-heavy, data-intensive problems with it. So, if it’s logistics in supply chain management, or natural gas and resource extraction, financial services, pharmaceuticals, bioinformatics — those are the topics right now. But that’s not the killer app!”

He leaves us hanging at that point, recognizing perhaps that the most interesting applications are impossible to foresee.

Here’s the video in its entirety, with lots of fascinating demonstration footage:

AB — 1 June 2010

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