Search and Natural User Interfaces (NUIs) - Part 1

About five years ago or so, I participated in a conference panel where the question was asked: “What will search interfaces look like 20 years from now?”. I had just seen Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi film “Minority Report” starring Tom Cruise, so I referred to the scene where Cruise’s character is interacting with a futuristic looking visual display and using appropriately dramatic gestures to grab, spin, shrink, expand, and otherwise manipulate the various news stories and images floating on the display.

I heard later that Spielberg, while developing the script for the film, had consulted a number of futurists to create as realistic picture of the year 2050 as possible (from the point of view of those futurists at least). Interestingly, over the past several years, that scene has become a conceptual benchmark for so-called natural user interfaces (NUIs), to the point where if you search for “minority report” in your favorite Web video search engine you’re as likely to find examples of prototype NUI products as you are trailers for the actual film. It’s not a stretch, imo, to say that the film has inspired and perhaps even accelerated advancements in NUI products and technology.

There are now many good and real examples of NUIs and even some actual products that come close to the vision in "Minority Report", but despite the impact the film appears to have had on the development of NUIs, there is a very strong connection to search that gets overlooked. Cruise’s character in that scene is searching. His various gestures and other contortions are queries, navigation, and refinements intended to help him find answers and collect information. Granted the depiction is not quite up to the vision of the smooth-voiced computer on Star Trek, but it’s a step beyond the keyboard and mouse and, if you look past the theatrics, I think it paints a realistic view of not just the future of natural user interfaces, but of the type of natural search-driven user interfaces we will be seeing soon… in much less than 20 years time.