Windows Icons Mice and Pointers—the WIMP environment is how we've been piloting our computers since the clever guys at Xerox PARC developed the system in the early 1970's. The mouse itself has just turned 40 years old. But a number of technologies are just about to change everything, and bring Minority Report-alike futuristic computer interfaces into reality.
Our interaction with technology is already more physical than typing and mice: Nintendo's Wii is raking in the cash because the motion-sensing Wiimote allows for a degree of "natural" control over games that's not been seen before. Apple's iPhone and its laptops, incorporate multi-touch technology, making sophisticated command-interactions with the devices as easy as touching their surfaces in different ways.
Hands-free gesture interactions are an everyday occurrence too. Sony's EyeToy webcam plugin for the PlayStation lets you play games by running, jumping, waving and punching on the spot while the webcam stares at you and the CPU works out how what the heck you're up to.
Key to driving our gadgets into an even more gesture-based future are a couple of technological breakthroughs.
Firstly, position and movement sensing is now cheap and reliable enough to be simply incorporated into everyday gadgets. Microscopic semiconductor accelerometers in the iPhone sense how you're waving it about. The Wii, meanwhile, combines accelerometers with an infra-red positioning system to locate the Wiimote in 3D space in near-real time.
Secondly, display technology is developing almost faster than technology writers can keep up with it. The humble LCD has gone through a trillion refinements, and can now be reliably manufactured in sizes that would've dazzled its inventors. Panasonic have crafted a single-unit plasma display used in a gargantuan 150-inch TV. Flat displays are now also flexible. But industry is already exploring standards for displaying 3D imagery on future TVs, and holographic displays are being invented left, right and center.
Most importantly of all, integrated circuit revolutions of all types, from cell architecture to shrinking transistor sizes have given CPUs potentially "spare" power. This means devices can perform all the motion-capturing, interpret it, apply it to controling software and display the results with ease. And do it cheaply too.
Sensing the future, Apple has just patented an enhanced version of its desktop that incorporates 3D elements and "real physics" properties: dropping a file gets a more literal meaning. And Oblong Industrie has seized the Minority Report idea, and combined existing technologies into a prototype UI called G-Speak. If it looks amazingly similar to the way Tom Cruise interacted with his machines it's because one of the company founders worked on the movie.
WIMP works because it's a closer analog to traditional paper and pen desks, and it sealed the fate of text-based command-line computing. But traditional paper-based desktops don't fully marry with how we really interact with objects: items have 3D physical properties. We move them in three dimensions, we organise, associate thoughts, feelings, impressions with, and get new ideas from physical objects very differently.
Which is why 3D fully-interactive gesture-based user interfaces, thanks to technological paradigm shifts, will be on your desktop—or hovering above it—sometime sooner than you think.