Why In-the-Air Gestures Are Failing as a Mainstream User Interface

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2014-06-13 Print this article Print

So they fixed the problem by offering a Kinect-free Xbox version at a lower price of around $400. At this week's E3, Kinect was barely mentioned by Microsoft, and some tech publications are calling it "dead in the water."

Xbox is a platform. And with Kinect and in-the-air gestures on the ropes, developers may shun the interface, leading to a snowball effect that results in the termination of Kinect.

Google recently bought a company called Nest, best known for a smart thermostat product. Nest had more recently launched a smart smoke detector called the Nest Protect Smoke + CO alarm, which offers in-the-air gesture control. If an alarm went off because, let's say you burnt the toast, you could silence the smoke alarm with a simple wave of your hand.

Unfortunately, the company had to recall some 440,000 units because the gesture feature didn't work right. Specifically, it was too easy to silence the alarm in a real fire; in other words, the gesture interface gave too many "false positives." Nest fixed the problem.

Despite the initial glitch and recall, the use of in-the-air gestures actually makes sense for a smoke detector for the practical reality that they're usually too high to reach. It makes sense because in-the-air gesture control is better than fetching a ladder.

Why In-the-Air Gesture Control Is Failing

Controlling smart devices with in-the-air gestures is a cool idea. And some of the technology is amazing.

The problem is that in-the-air gestures are often applied as an abstraction interface, like the mouse. What I mean by that is that with a mouse you move the pointer to a certain place to effect change on the screen over here. You move one thing in order to move another.

In-the-air gesture interfaces are the same thing. You wave your hands in front of the screen in order to make some change on the screen.

And such abstract user interfaces can't compete with touch interfaces, like the ones we have on our phones, tablets and some PCs. The reason is that our brains are hardwired for direct manipulation of objects in our environment. When we want to move something, we want to touch and move the thing itself, not something virtual.

In other words, in-the-air gestures for control present too great a "leap" (pun intended) for the human animal.

People do use gestures, but never to control or manipulate things. We use gestures to communicate. And that's where in-the-air gestures will shine.

Just as we use natural hand gestures while talking, we can expect that using in-the-air gestures for communicating with computers—for computers to understand us better when we're interacting with them—will be the place where our current in-the-air gestures technology will finally take off and go mainstream.

When computers understand a shrug to mean "I don't know" and understand a thumbs-up to mean "yes" or "I like it," then in-the-air gestures will find mainstream acceptance.

But until in-the-air gesture technology is applied to communication, rather than control, we can safely wave off in-the-air gestures as a gimmick, or an interface for obscure outliers or another layer on the ash heap of cool technology rejected by the public.



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