Microsoft's plans for voice, touch and gesture-activated controls extend beyond Xbox Kinect and Windows Phone 7.
Xbox Kinect and Windows Phone 7 are just the beginning of Microsoft's push
into natural user interfaces, according to discussions with company executives.
Plans include baking touch, gesture and voice-activated technology into
products ranging from video games to vehicles.
Ilya Bukshteyn, senior director of marketing for Microsoft Tellme, told
eWEEK during a Dec. 1 meeting in New York City
that speech represented one of Microsoft's "key initiatives,"
although it remains "a little more nascent than the cloud."
Microsoft's new Kinect hands-free controller leverages a 3D camera to
transcribe the player's body movements onto their on-screen avatar, and it also
includes a substantial voice-activated element: Whether shouting commands to a
character in an Xbox game, or telling a movie to pause or fast-forward, the
spoken word represents a sizable element of the user interface. Meanwhile, some
20 percent of Bing Mobile searches are conducted via voice.
"Speech is this common key ingredient in NUI
[natural user interface]," Bukshteyn said. Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7
also heavily leverages speech in its search and features.
He predicted a timeframe of "two to three years" before voice
becomes a more ubiquitous factor in both the consumer and enterprise space. For
the latter, he suggested that voice, touch and gesture would operate in unison
through devices ranging from tablets to whiteboard-style screens. That being
said, he also declined to comment on any specific initiatives under
"Cloud is an enabler of NUI,"
Bukshteyn added, suggesting that data from Bing and other venues was helping
refine those technologies.
Microsoft first announced its
acquisition of Tellme Networks in 2007, in order to buttress its
voice-technology offerings for devices and services. "We see voice and
speech recognition as ways to improve interaction with productivity software,"
Jeff Raikes, then president of the Microsoft Business Division, wrote in a
statement at the time. "People are on the go. They want the ability to use
voice as a way to interface-whether it is to access information or connect with
Previous to the acquisition, Tellme Networks was a privately held company
with 320 employees and customers such as UPS,
American Airlines and FedEx. Microsoft initially intended its new acquisition's
assets to buttress its Unified Communications products, in addition to phones
and other devices.
Microsoft recently acquired Canesta, a maker of 3D-image sensor chips and
camera modules that can be embedded in a variety of consumer products,
including laptops and vehicle dashboards. The recent popularity of Kinect-the
controller reportedly sold 2.5 million units within its first 25 days of
release-will likely compel Microsoft to leverage that 3D technology toward
other devices and applications.
Not content to wait for Microsoft and its manufacturing partners to innovate
further on gesture technology, a number of tech pros and tinkerers have
modified Kinect's 3D camera for non-gaming functions, including painting 3D
images in midair and controlling robots.
After making some initial sounds of disapproval, Microsoft moved to embrace
that tinkering. "The first thing to talk about is that Kinect was not
actually hacked," Alex Kipman, Microsoft's director of incubation for
during a Nov. 19 interview with NPR. "Someone wrote an open-source
driver for PCs that essentially opens the USB
connection, which we didn't protect by design, and reads the inputs from the
In the meantime, Microsoft seemingly plans for natural user interfaces to
play a major part in its future road map.
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.