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Holographic meetings, gestures as mouse clicks and the Microsoft magic wand

WebEx is almost barbarbic. Microsoft would much rather see us all engaging in something more civilized, such as holographic office meetings. Earlier this month, Microsoft applied for a patent for "Virtual Office Devices" which would allow users to have meetings with holographic images of other, remote attendees.

The patent is rather vague on the actual hardware and software that would create these holographic meetings, although it does include 21 pictures and diagrams of how these meetings would take place. Patrice Simard, chief scientist and manager of the recently gutted Microsoft Live Labs, is listed as one of the inventors. (Live Labs is responsible for developing Photosynth, and a few other nifty Web apps.) Simard is the inventor for a whole lotta Microsoft patents including some for machine learning, activity detection, digital ink and a whiteboard imaging system. Given the connection, sheer speculation would lead us to conclude that holographic meetings could one day be an online service for Windows Live users that one-ups the kind of shared PowerPoint and voice apps that passes for a virtual meeting these days.

holographic meeting

Microsoft's submitted the above sketch with its patent application. It envisions the above diagram to eventually look like the scene below.

Star Wars hologram

Gestures as commands

Along those same lines, Microsoft applied for several other UI patents on interesting technologies in May. For instance, patent application US20090125824 defines a "user interface with physics engine for natural gestural control." The patent describes this as:

"A method for causing an action in response to user input, the method comprising the steps of:accepting a gesture from a user on a touch sensitive surface; determining a type of gesture that has been accepted by the touch sensitive surface using a sensor array and a single mechanical, momentary contact switch activated by the sensor array; and performing an action in response to the type of gesture that has been accepted, the action at least in part simulating behavior of a physically embodied object."

Similarly, Microsoft submitted a second, related patent application (US20090125811) for a "user interface that provides auditory feedback." This allows the computer to give associated beeps and other sounds in response to the gestures made on a gesture pad such as the one described in the "natural gestural control" patent.

Interestingly, while playing with the Microsoft Surface demos at TechEd last week, Computerworld senior editor and Microsoft beat reporter, Eric Lai, mentioned that Microsoft had bigger plans to allow the Surface to interpret gestures, beyond directional touch. Users may in the future be able to hold their hands above the table and use gestures as commands using, for instance, American Sign Language. Lai speculated that this would lead to the development of a computing specific gestural library, and the discussion soon escalated into the future of human/computer interfaces. Judging from this patent, looks like Lai was right.

The magic wand

But maybe the funniest Microsoft patent application comes to us via blogger Todd Bishop that indicates Microsoft's chief technology officer J Allard must be reading a lot of J.K Rowling lately. According to an application with the U.S. patent office that lists Allard and a few others as the inventors, Microsoft is seeking a patent for a "Magic Wand."

This is apparently a motion-sensor UI device somewhat like a Wii remote but in the shape of a wand. There's not a lot of data on the device itself (such as, whether its core holds the feather of a Phoenix). Bishop explains:

"Although it was only made public a few days ago, the application was originally filed in November 2007 -- about a year after Nintendo launched the Wii, with its distinctive, wand-style controller. ... it boils down to a wand-like device with various built-in gizmos and sensors that can manipulate and interact with its environment, including video and holographic images, while using biometrics to connect with the user."

Two such uses, according to the patent application, include the wand recognizing the user holding it and the wand communicating with others in a walkie-talkie-like fashion.

If a "magic wand" tickles your fancy, you may also be interested another patent application filed in May by Microsoft that allows users to get access to "secret information in a multiplayer game." The technology is more underwhelming than its name implies (but that doesn't stop Microsoft from wanting to patent it). It allows users to ask a secret question and for the information to be displayed onscreen, according to the patent application. Yes, that would mean that the answer is visible to all players, but hey, the question would remain secret.

Looks like the future of the computer UI is shaping up to be magic of the kind used by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Harry Potter.

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