Oh sure, they look really cool, and certainly companies are doggedly trying to create them. Bloggers and tech geeks love them. (Any time you put Minority Report into a title, you’re bound to get traffic.) But I guarantee you very few of those people have actually used one for any length of time. If not done well (and sometimes even if they are), they are exhausting. Human beings aren’t meant to hold their arms out in front of their bodies making gestures for long periods of time. It creates a condition called Gorilla Arm (aching muscles, stiffness, a swollen feeling) because it violates basic human ergonomics. Tom Cruise (who, let’s be honest, is in better shape than 95% of us) was reportedly tired from just acting out the scenes in the movie.
But I know you still want one; they seem awesome. Gestural interfaces show us how little of the body we actually use when interacting with the digital world. The Wii and Kinect, as Minority Report did, show us there are other ways of doing our tasks that can be more engaging, more physical. After all, who wouldn’t want to sweep their arm in front of a giant screen to open a folder? It’s like magic, and makes the simple mouse click or even finger tap seem dull. If nothing else, Minority Report-style interfaces cause us to think more expansively about what an interface could or should be, how we could be interacting with our devices and environments.
This is not to say that I don’t think we’ll ever have these kinds of interfaces. We will and we do. I’ve designed some. As Bill Buxton notes, every technology is good for some things and bad for others. There are situations where large-scale, broad gesture gestural interfaces make sense: gaming, collaboration situations, public installations, possibly industrial settings. In general: activities that are short-term in duration. Hours of sustained use will have you begging for your keyboard.
Instead of looking to Minority Report for inspiration, might I suggest we look to a humbler source for the future of gestural interfaces: public bathrooms. The toilet flushes as you walk away; the sink turns on as you put your hands under it; a paper towel dispenses with a wave of a hand. This is everyday magic, so natural we seldom even think about it. These are the kind of gestural interfaces I want to have in my living room, my kitchen, my hobbies, my workplace. Interactive gestures that blend into our activities, enhancing them in ways that aren’t gimmicky or tiring, and yet are beautiful, fluid, expressive. That’s the future I want to live in.