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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Reflections On CES From A Perspective Of The Future

Comments (6)

I believe that science fiction is reality catching up to the future. Others say that science fact is the science fiction of the past. Regardless, the gap between science fact and science fiction is fascinating to me, especially as it applies to computers.

My partners and I spend time at CES each year along with a bunch of the founders from different companies we’ve invested in due to our human computer interaction theme. In addition to a great way to start the year together, it gives us a chance to observe how the broad technology industry, especially on the consumer electronics side, is trying to catch up to the future.

We are investors in Oblong, a company who’s co-founder (John Underkoffler) envisions much of the future we are currently experiencing when he created the science and tech behind the movie Minority Report. Oblong’s CEO, Kwin Kramer, wandered the floor of CES with this lens on and had some great observations which he shares with you below.

Looking back at last year’s CES through the greasy lens of this year’s visit to Vegas, three trends have accelerated: tablets, television apps platforms, and new kinds of input.

I gloss these as “Apple’s influence continuing to broaden”, “a shift from devices to ecosystems,” and “the death of the remote control.”

Really, the first two trends have merged together. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad, along with iTunes, AirPlay, and FaceTime, have profoundly influenced our collective expectations.

All of the television manufacturers are now showing “smart” TV prototypes. “Smart” means some combination of apps, content purchases, video streaming, video conferencing, web browsing, new remote controls, control from phones and tablets, moving content around between devices, screen sharing between devices, home “cloud”, face recognition, voice control, and gestural input.

Samsung showed the most complete bundle of “smart” features at the show this year and is planning to ship a new flagship television line that boasts both voice and gesture recognition.

This is good stuff. The overall interaction experience may or may not be ready for the mythical “average user”, but the features work. (An analogy: talking and waving at these TVs feels like using a first-generation PalmPilot, not a first-generation iPhone. But the PalmPilot was a hugely successful and category changing product.)

The Samsung TVs use a two-dimensional camera, not a depth sensor. As a result, gestural navigation is built entirely around hand motion in X and Y and open-hand/grab transitions. The tracking volume is roughly the 30 degree field of view of the camera between eight feet and fifteen feet from the display.

Stepping back and filtering out the general CES clamor, what we’re seeing is the continuing, but still slow, coming to pass of the technology premises on which we founded Oblong: pixels available in more and more form factors, always-on network connections to a profusion of computing devices, and sensors that make it possible to build radically better input modalities.

Interestingly, there are actually fewer gestural input demos on display at CES this year than there were last year. Toshiba, Panasonic and Sony, for example, weren’t showing gesture control of TVs. But it’s safe to assume that all of these companies continue to do R&D into gestural input in particular, and new user experiences in general.

PrimeSense has made good progress, too. They’ve taken an open-hand/grab approach that’s broadly similar to Samsung’s, but with good use of the Z dimension in addition. The selection transitions, along with push, pull and inertial side-scroll, feel solid.

Besides the television, the other interesting locus of new UI design at CES is the car dashboard. Mercedes showed off a new in-car interface driven partly by free-space gestures. And Ford, Kia, Cadillac, Mercedes and Audi all have really nice products and prototypes and employ passionate HMI people.

For those of us who pay a lot of attention to sensors, the automotive market is always interesting. Historically, adoption in cars has been one important way that new hardware gets to mass-market economies of scale.

The general consumer imaging market continues to amaze me, though. Year-over-year progress in resolution, frame rate, dynamic range and cost continues unabated.

JVC is showing a 4k video camera that will retail for $5,000. And the new cameras (and lenses) from Nikon and Canon are stunning. There’s no such thing anymore as “professional” equipment in music production, photography or film. You can charge all the gear you need for recording an album, or making a feature-length film, on a credit card.

Similarly, the energy around the MakerBot booth was incredibly fun to see. Fab and prototyping capabilities are clearly on the same downward-sloping, creativity-enabling, curve as cameras and studio gear. I want a replicator!

And, of course, I should say that Oblong is hiring. We think the evolution of the multi-device, multi-screen, multi-user future is amazingly interesting. We’re helping to invent that future and we’re always looking for hackers, program managers, and experienced engineering leads.

  • Frank Miller

    I recently got a new car with one of those fancy touchscreen interfaces for everything.  I like the concept of having it all integrated.  From a design point of view, its a fundamentally different problem than the desktop or the tablet or your TV.

    One thing that struck me right away was that more than my other places where I use computers, the need for tactile feedback seems important.  I attribute this to a desire for the control itself to provide immediate response allowing me to get back to looking at the road ASAP.  The computer sitting behind the touchscreen seems underpowered to me in that many times when I push a GUI button, it takes just long enough for the drawing of the button push and the playing of the click to happen that I feel like its not really as nice as I’d want that tactile feedback to be.

    I wonder whether gesturing in a car is going to have a similar issue.  In the gesture systems I’ve used, the feedback is mainly visual, with maybe some sound to back it up.  I wonder whether the need for that positive immediate response you get just from the clicking of a button or the feel of a dial rotating will limit the usefulness of gestures to some degree in cars.  Waving your hand and then having to look at a screen to see whether your command took or was interpreted correctly seems like a basic weakness.

    • kwindla

      That’s a really good point about feedback being important. We often find that a little bit of audio goes a long way. And as you say, responsiveness is critical. Any delay in the feedback loop (even for visual feedback) degrades the user experience.

      At Oblong, we’ve worked hard to make sure that all our gestural interfaces feel tightly coupled to user activity of every kind. In particular, physical movement in real space should always drive an “immediate” response in virtual space. “Immediate” ought to be something like a twentieth of a second, or three frames at 60 hertz. Anything worse and you’re rapidly devolving down towards the “game mechanics” zone, where the best you can do is build applications around the frustrations you’re creating for your users.

      And responsiveness is one axis, here. Precision and robustness of recognition matter, too, in a similar qualitative way.

      There’s been relatively little work done, overall, on non-visual feedback. There’s great audio work in video games. But not much audio R&D applied to general-purpose interfaces. There’s a lot of academic research on haptics, but most of the tactile stuff is hard to apply to production systems. We’ve done a little bit with the buzzy motors in phones. But there’s certainly a lot more experimentation to be done here. (And, ultimately, fun new hardware to design.)

  • tyronerubin

    Great article as always. 

    @bfeld:twitter you link to Oblon at the top is to oblong.co and not oblong.com

    thanks!

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