Page last updated at 10:46 GMT, Friday, 14 March 2008

Beyond the keyboard and mouse

By Chris Vallance
Reporter, BBC iPM, in Austin, Texas

Microsoft Surface

Earlier this week the front page of the Austin Chronicle featured a picture of the band the Guitar Zeros - a group of musicians who perform using hacked versions of the Guitar Hero video game controller.

It's an extreme example of how popular the game and its guitar style interface have become.

"It's pretty amazing we took something that was real and made it fake and they took something fake and made it real" said Kai Huang, CEO of RedOctane who created the game.

But while games like Guitar Hero and the Nintendo Wii are exploring new kinds of kinetic interface, in our work lives most of us are stuck with the Qwerty keyboard and the computer mouse: inventions that date back 134 years and 45 years respectively.

At SXSW in Austin Texas, what comes next has been a hot topic of conversation across a range of expert panels.

For Huang simpler interfaces like Guitar Hero point the way to the future.

Cynergy controller
Minority Report has inspired many designs, including the Cynergy controller

Guitar Hero "allows people to jump from point a to point b, it skips all of those hard years, the 10,000 hours it would take someone to learn a real instrument.. and I think that can be applied to just about everything," he told the BBC.

Outside the realm of games, Microsoft's Surface is another alternative to keyboard and mouse beginning to find a place in the consumer world.

Kristin Alexander, head of research and planning for Microsoft Surface, says interfaces will, in the longer term, move beyond table top screens to other spaces.

Guitar Hero
Guitar Hero has been praised for its innovative interfaces

"That's why we called it Surface and not table.", she said, adding that the long term vision was both horizontal and vertical. Although she stressed Microsoft remained very committed to the mouse.

If that's the plan, then Microsoft may have a bit of catching up to do, Rick Barraza of Cynergy Systems was showcasing a home made "Minority Report" style gesture-interface made of a Nintendo Wii controller, a gutted computer mouse, and a pair of baseball gloves dotted with infra-red LED's, "the whole things is maybe around $150" said Barraza.

In spite of the homebrew feel, the results were impressive.

"It was unabashedly inspired by Minority Report... very much like Microsoft Surface without the surface."

Currently, the Surface costs several thousand dollars.

Microsoft is pushing Surface, but not abandoning the mouse
But Minority Report may not be the best answer.

The Make it So: Learning from Sci-Fi Interfaces panel at SXSW looked at how science fiction might influence the future of design.

Panellist Nathan Shedroff who teaches an MBA in design said: "If you talk to the people who worked on the film they had to keep taking breaks because Tom Cruise would get tired."

Barrazza and Shedroff might disagree about the physical demands of gesture style interfaces, no such problems face the Emotiv system which uses electrical activity in the brain to control computer systems; it was seen as a promising development by several speakers.

"In 20 to 40 years that technology is going to advance," said Huang.

But while the world waits for brain powered computing there was general agreement that in many ways the key to easily accessible computing wasn't necessarily only a matter of greater sophistication.

"The simple thing is to add a few more buttons. The really difficult thing is to simplify that down," Huang told the conference.

Fans of the Guitar Zero's would presumably agree.

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