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Microsoft Chief Research Officer Craig Mundie visited MIT this Thursday to give a talk on human-computer interaction as part of the Dertouzos lecture series hosted by CSAIL. Mundie talked about the advantages and applications of computer systems that eschew the traditional mouse and keyboard interface. He also mentioned his own interests in photography and videography, calling himself “a Canon guy.”
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Imagine you wanted to buy a gift for your aunt. You might ask her for a wish list, bring the paper into a store and spend a dull afternoon browsing.

What if you could do it all virtually, with a wave of your hand? In 3-D, no less?

According to Craig J. Mundie, Chief Research and Strategy Officer of Microsoft, this future is closer than we may think. Through advances in Human-Centric Computing — the idea that computers should be designed so human-machine interaction is as natural and intuitive as possible — we may one day be able to control a computer with simple hand gestures instead of keyboards.

Yesterday afternoon, Mundie, donning 3-D glasses, led the audience in his quest to buy the perfect gift for his hypothetical aunt at his talk: “More like Us: Human-Centric Computing” at in 32-123, part of CSAIL’s Dertuozos Lecture Series.

With a few expert waves of his hand, Mundie opened a virtual room containing the contents of his aunt’s wish list. He selected a pasta maker, zoomed in and rotated the image. At one point, he widened out his arms and the pasta maker expanded so that its hundreds of internal parts are visible. Finally, after reading reads the specs, conveniently located right next to the image, he makes one more tap in midair. The purchase is complete.

The technology behind this demonstration is Xbox Kinect, a webcam-style console add-on that Microsoft will release next month. Through depth-sensing technology, Kinect builds a skeletal model of the player and allows him/her to interact with the game without the aid of a game controller, relying on more natural and intuitive commands like talking and gesturing instead.

“People who’ve never played video games before will be able to start operating them right away, because it’s the same as operating in the natural world they already understand,” Mundie said. “The goal of natural user interface is that the barrier of learning to engage and operate the system is much lower.”

In his talk, Mundie explored various advances in natural user interfaces (which he pronounces “NUI,” rhyming with “GUI,” pronounced “gooey”) and explored their implications for various fields, including the video game industry. In another demonstration of virtual gaming, Mundie steps into a lush landscape of Autumn trees and walks towards the 3-D avatars of two friends, who greet him as if they were there in person. They are playing a “Player Participation TV Series,” in which 3-D avatars roam a virtual world, changing the course of the story in real time. A TV episode setting up the evolving plotline would air once a week. Mundie has a conversation with his friends and uses his hands to move around a video clue.

“We want to emulate the experience of social interaction,” Mundie said.

Other advances in natural user interaction have the potential to dramatically affect fields outside the realm of the entertainment industry. Mundie believes that in the field of health care, sterile computer control could allow doctors in operating rooms to manage their imaging systems through gestures. Virtual receptionists in rural areas could scale access to basic health care, decreasing the need for expensive labor. More intuitive computing would also decrease the barriers to computer literacy.

Reception

Students were pleased with the presentation.

Monica D. Ruiz ’12, thought the presentation was “very well put-together,” and said she found it “really cool to look at.”

Greg D. Puszko ’13, who thought the talk could have been more technical, was nevertheless pleased with the demo of Xbox Kinect. He said, “After playing with it for a minute, it felt very natural. I was surprised at how responsive it was.”

Leif G. Francel ’11 said, “It was like something I would have seen at Disney World, but it’s amazing that the technology is so close to market.”