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

NEWS ANALYSIS: In-the-air gestures as a general computing device user interface are failing to catch on. And they're not even doing well in the games field, which would seem their natural niche.

Scanning the headlines over the past year, you might be forgiven for believing that in-the-air gestures were coming soon to living room boxes, PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

But in-the-air gestures won't be a mainstream user interface any time soon. I'll tell you exactly why at the end of this column. But first, let's face the fail.

Amazon and Microsoft are both rumored to be working on smartphones that have front-facing optical sensors similar to the technology in Microsoft's Kinect lines of products.

Kinect blew people away when Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox 360 first hit the market. The technology enabled a certain kind of game where the system knew your position and movements. It responded to in-the-air gestures.

So with similar technology, you'd think that these phones would also support in-the-air gestures.

Amazon's phone will probably be announced June 18 at a scheduled event. The phone is expected to use four front-facing sensors to recognize the orientation and location of the face that's looking at the screen so the screen can show 3D images without goofy glasses.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is reportedly working on a future phone under its mobile devices division purchased from Nokia that has "Kinect-like features" such as sensors that enable gestures. (The report is based on anonymous sources.)

At first, that sounds like Kinect built into a phone, leading to in-the-air gestures, gaming and all the rest.

In fact, most of the gestures are handy but limited. For example, the report says that leading gesture contenders are that you can answer calls by holding the phone to your ear; put the phone on speaker by placing it on a table; mute calls by holding your hand over the phone; and wake up the phone by picking it up.

These "gestures" probably combine visual sensors and motion sensors in the phone. Only one true in-the-air gesture was suggested in the report: waving your hand in front of the screen to dismiss an alert.

So while both of these phones are likely to contain the sensors for in-the-air gestures, they won't really do much to take advantage of that interface. The companies making these phones know that in-the-air gesture control is a losing proposition, even when the sensors are going to be built in anyway.

When Leap Motion's motion controller product was in beta and being demonstrated at high-visibility events, everyone Ooh'd and Aah'd at the potential for in-the-air gesture control for everything. Pundits predicted a bold new interface would soon take over.

But one year after the product actually shipped, I don't see people using it.

Yes, startups, science projects, makers and tinkerers are getting a lot out of the Leap Motion controller. But it's nonexistent as a mainstream user interface. The public is rejecting the interface.

By the way, HP will soon ship a PC keyboard with a Leap Motion controller built in, and I'm predicting it won't be a hot seller.

In-the-Air Gestures Losing Out for Games

Kinect for Xbox was the crown jewel of in-the-air gesture control. When the Xbox One shipped less than a year ago, Kinect was a required component of that gaming system. But the console wasn't competing against the Sony PlayStation as Microsoft had hoped.