Monday, June 25, 2012

Minority Report: 15 Harmful Years Later

Wired took a look at the impact of the movie version of Minority Report, fifteen years later.

The year was 1999, and Steven Spielberg was preparing to turn Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Minority Report” into a $100 million action movie starring Tom Cruise. There was just one problem: The story was set in the undated future, and the director had no idea what that future should look like. He wanted the world of the movie to be different from our own, but he also wanted to avoid the exaggerated and often dystopian speculation that plagued most science fiction

...To mark the 10th anniversary of Minority Report‘s June 21 release, Wired spoke to more than a dozen people who were at the so-called “idea summit” that delved deep into the future. As participant Joel Garreau recalls, “I don’t think many of us knew what the fuck we were getting ourselves into.”

The tech from Minority Report that people remember most -- the scenes of Tom Cruise waving his hands to navigate a computer interface -- are probably some of the most harmful ever filmed.

Like voice control and television wristwatches, controlling our devices with three-dimensional physical gestures seems like a good idea. However, like those other technologies, its usefulness is limited.

While the image of Tom Cruise waving his arms all over the place like an amphetamine-boosted symphony conductor makes for dramatic cinema, it turns casual computing tasks into physical tasks exhausting for a healthy person and impossible for a disabled person.

The lowly computer mouse and its cousin, the trackpad, are marvels of efficiency. By moving one hand (or finger) a couple of inches, one can navigate thousands of pixels' worth of computer interface.

The precision of mice and trackpads is unparalleled as well. Mice and trackpads are precise to within several pixels. When considering touch interfaces, accuracy drops by an order of magnitude: Apple recommends that touch-based interface targets measure no less than 44x44 pixels. When considering three-dimensional, gesture-based, Minority Report-style interfaces, accuracy drops by another order of magnitude.1

Three dimensional gesture-based navigation clearly does have its uses. Microsoft's Kinect has shown that it can be very useful for specially-designed games, and low-precision tasks like simple media playback control.

Three-dimensional gestures are clearly a part of the future, but they are not the future. A variety of input methods (the command line, mice, keyboards, touch interfaces, gesture interfaces) will continue to be used, each fulfilling a role.

1 Speculation. I couldn't find hard data on this. It's tough to dispute, though.

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