Microsoft’s annual R&D budget is huge—$9.6 billion for 2011, to be exact. Over the years, a chunk of that research money has gone into exploring touch-based interfaces. Some, like the Metro GUI that will appear in Windows 8, are ready for public consumption. Others are still a little ways off—but are much bolder in their design.
At the Association for Computing Machinery’s 24th Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, Microsoft is unveiling a couple of touch-based interface projects that its researchers have been working on for a number of years. The first and most outlandish is OmniTouch, which ditches touchscreens in favor of an interface that can be projected on any surface the user chooses. OmniTouch relies on a shoulder-mounted projector and camera, which work in tandem to draw interface elements and track your finger’s interaction with them. The system is described as being similar to Kinect but optimized to work at short range. Although the existing OmniTouch prototype looks a little unwieldy, the researches say there are "no significant barriers" to making the device much smaller.
While OmniTouch relies on a separate projector and camera, PocketTouch could be integrated directly into smartphones. As its name suggest, this interface is designed to allow users to input touch-based commands to devices sitting in their pockets. An initial unlock gesture is used to determine the orientation of the PocketTouch surface, and researchers were actually surprised at how well their prototype was able to interpret gestures through thicker materials like heavy fleece.
PocketTouch seems likely to make a quicker transition to consumer devices than OmniTouch, but both mechanisms have intriguing potential. You can see them in action in these videos on Microsoft’s Research site.