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The Future Technology Nobody Is Talking About
Do technology like 3D gaming and motion-controlled devices give us a hint on what Microsoft envisions for the future?
Even though I have never been much of a gamer, I am an avid user of Microsoft Flight Simulator X. I used to be a pilot and although my vision prevents me from flying any more, I still enjoy simulated flying with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X and with Space Shuttle Mission 2007 from Exciting Simulations.
Last summer one of my closest friends bought an airplane and decided to get his pilot’s license. Naturally, I did my best to try to answer any questions that he had, but I also introduced him to Microsoft Flight Simulator. The simulator is good enough that a student pilot can use it to practice various skills before they ever climb into the cockpit.
Recently, I was showing my friend a virtual reality helmet that I occasionally use for simulated flight. The setup consists of a set of glasses that have two video monitors integrated into them. These video monitors render the image in 3D. The helmet also has a head tracking device that allows you to look around the simulated cockpit just by moving your head. It really makes the whole simulator experience feel a lot more realistic.
When I showed my friend the VR setup, he asked me if there was anything else that the technology could be used for. I explained that it would work with first person shooter games, but he said that he was more curious as to whether or not there were uses for virtual reality technology outside of gaming.
That question reminded me of something really cool that I saw about six months ago. It isn’t exactly virtual reality, but it has its similarities and it is a lot cooler than my virtual reality helmet.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know that most of the movies being made today are in 3D. Furthermore, 3D televisions and 3D Blue-Ray players have been available to consumers for some time now. For the sake of those who haven’t watched a movie on a 3D television, I will tell you that the quality is surprisingly good. The images tend to be very lifelike and are absolutely nothing like the 3D movies from the 1980s that required wearing the glasses with the red and blue lenses.
Another trend that has been happening lately is that the line between televisions and computer monitors has really begun to blur. Almost every TV and computer monitor being sold today has a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 and has HDMI and D-SUB (VGA) inputs. Essentially, the only real difference between a TV and a computer monitor is that most computer monitors do not include TV tuners.
That being the case, it should come as no surprise that there are 3D computer monitors on the market. Currently the support for them is limited. In order to render games or other images in 3D, the computer has to have a 3D-capable video card. To the best of my knowledge, NVidia is the only company that currently makes 3D video cards. However, the technology is becoming more commonplace. In fact, I recently purchased a laptop that included a 3D display and a 3D video adapter.
OK, so it’s possible to watch movies and play games in 3D on your computer. So what? Well, as I mentioned earlier, my friend asked if virtual reality technology had uses beyond gaming. Before I tell you what these uses are, I need to talk about another gaming technology.
One of the hottest consumer electronic devices right now is the Xbox Kinect. If you have never used one, the Kinect is essentially a 3D video camera that has been adapted for use as a game controller. Rather than interacting with games using a traditional controller, you can use body motions to play games. For example, there are Kinect-compatible games that require you to act as if you are swinging a golf club, throwing a football or even fist fighting an opponent.
For right now the Kinect is only designed to be used with the XBOX 360. However, there are two facts that can’t be ignored. First, the Kinect connects to the Xbox 360 via a USB connection. This means that even though it isn’t officially supported it is physically possible to plug the Kinect into a PC.
The other fact that can’t be ignored is that the Kinect is made by Microsoft. There have been several rumors coming out of Redmond that Windows 8 will include a Kinect driver that will make it possible to interact with a PC using hand gestures. If that sounds farfetched then consider this: Windows 7 and Windows 8 are both designed to be used with touch screens. When you interact with a touch screen you are using hand gestures. Is it really such a stretch to think that an operating system that is already touch enabled could also support other types of hand gestures?
So what does the Kinect have to do with virtual reality or 3D displays? Well, I saw a proof-of-concept demonstration several months ago in which a Kinect sensor and a 3D display were used together to create a sort of virtual reality experience. The demo involved computer-aided design. The person giving the demo was able to view a computer rendered image in 3D. Because the image appeared to be floating in front of the screen, it was possible to use the Kinect sensor to directly interact with the CAD image. Using hand gestures the person giving the demo was able to zoom and rotate the image by virtually “touching” it and manipulating it with his hands.
I’m not saying that you will be able to do this with Windows 8. I have absolutely no idea what Microsoft has planned. However, I will say that everything that I have described can be done using off-the-shelf components. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see this type of interaction made available for Windows 8, Xbox360 or both sometime in the next 18 months.
As cool as that particular demo was, it isn’t the only futuristic thing being done with the technology. I have read that some surgeons use Kinect-enabled devices in the operating room. It allows them to interact with patient MRI images without having to touch anything. In other words, the doctor does not have to worry about getting his hands dirty and rescrubbing every time he needs to consult a medical image.
As I said before, I think that we will eventually see native support for Kinect and for 3D displays in Windows 8. Believe it or not though, Microsoft has a much more ambitious vision for what might be possible using Windows 8. As you might have heard, Windows 8 is being designed to work on desktops, laptops, tablets and even cell phones. With that in mind, check out this video that a friend at Microsoft showed me.
The video shows a number of different things that Microsoft envisions eventually being able to do with Windows devices. My personal favorite thing in the video is the frameless Windows phone. The entire phone is a screen. There is no plastic bezel around the edges.
Whether or not all of the technology shown in the video eventually becomes reality, it is still really cool to see what Microsoft is envisioning for the future.
Brien Posey is a seven time Microsoft MVP with over two decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written many thousands of articles and written or contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country’s largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. When He isn’t busy writing, Brien Posey enjoys exotic travel, scuba diving, and racing his Cigarette boat. You can visit his personal Web site at: www.brienposey.com.