What do you think about when the word “Natural Interface” comes up? If you were like me, things like the iPhone touch interface, the Microsoft Surface, and the tablet PCs would immediately come up. When a new paradigm of interaction, like touch, comes on the scene, some would wonder about its usefulness beyond the cool factor. I wish to address part of that question below.
Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer, recently demonstrated the interaction paradigm of 3D gestures in one of Microsoft's research projects. My favourite part was how he manipulated the design of a turbine blade using gestures and be presented with the outcome in terms of wind flow on a colour scale. By using gestures to manipulate design this way, engineers can avoid a large part of perturbing and experimenting with various parametric equations. The results are immediate, and changes can be made on the spot. This speeds up the design process, which has a direct economic impact. On the industry level, it enables larger problems to be solved more quickly.
Consider yet another scenario - robotic surgery. To operate with ever greater precision and effectiveness, surgeons need the help of various medical equipments and robotic devices that help them to see and operate better. Robotic arms that are small, flexible, and very "natural" to use for surgeons will allow for ever more complex surgeries to be done in minimally invasive manner. This is very important because size of cuts has an big impact on the patient's quality of life after surgery. Here again having an interface very natural to use makes a difference.
Let's consider the broader concept of natural interface. To me, technologies are tools, and making interfaces more natural is about accessibility - making those tools accessible/useful to a larger audience and support innovation in their respective problem domains so they enhance human abilities rather than impede it. How different would lives be if actuaries had to interact with their data through switches rather than keyboard/mouse/monitor/GUI? The impact is immense.
More importantly, on top of supporting people within their problem domains, if interface designers can find a low enough common denominator in interaction paradigm, people from across disciplines can collaborate much more effectively. What if auto designers can manipulate their design and immediately show engineers the impact of the change in a way engineers can understand and action on? What if the data was shown to designers in a way that they can understand engineers' perspective, too? Better designs faster is my guess.
What about being able to easily visualize and manipulate the mountain of data collected to enable high level decision makers to get a good picture of their organization and effect change more successfully. I think we are just seeing the beginning of such initiatives. Applying this level of accessibility to the entire industry or society and the effect is profound and full of possibilities.
No pressure, interface designers. :)