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With a new update for Microsoft's Kinect for Windows and devices like the phenomenal-looking Leap from LeapMotion due soon, do we really need touchscreen PCs? Will future systems skip ahead of phones and tablets with embedded sensors to provide more intuitive interaction and bring back a sense of magic to computing?

Getting Kinected

Kinect might not mean much to the general PC user base, but in gaming, the device has generated huge revenue for Microsoft, created a massive new category of games and introduced digital entertainment via the Xbox to all ages without the need for controllers or mastering complex button sequences, in a similar way that Nintendo's Wii did.

On the PC front, Kinect for Windows has just had an upgrade to version 1.5, with improved skeletal tracking, face tracking and an improved Kinect Studio to help shorten development times. These upgrades will help early stage developers bring products along, although a big push for Kinect on the PC isn't expected until Windows 8 ships, when Microsoft can sell games via the Windows Store.

If you want a "proper" example of Kinect in use, read this New Scientist article. It shows Kinect being used in operating theaters where keeping sterile is essential. So, touch free is an ideal way to scan through x-rays and scans, while the surgeon can work on the patient without having to move to the monitor to change the picture, or ask assistants to find what they need to see.

A Quantum Leap?

While the Kinect system, originally developed by PrimeSense, is getting better, the hardware is based on a design that is getting old fast, thanks to advances in technology and software. Other players are now taking an interest and creating alternative technologies.

Generating the most interest recently is LeapMotion, a company that created a generic $70 device for computers called Leap. Cheaper and easier to create for than the Kinect, it is currently a small USB box for PCs or laptops, but can probably be embedded within systems should sufficient be generated.  

The Leap is capable of emulating touch in Windows 8, so users won't need to upgrade their laptop for a touchscreen model. The company is giving away the SDK (as does Microsoft) so software should be plentiful in the near future.

Feeling Out the Future

Features like that could see the device picking up plenty of users. If it (or another technology) makes headway, we could see it becoming a replacement for the mouse or trackpad. Perhaps we're still some way off those Minority Report style glass screens, but devices like this will move our existing computers closer to that type of interaction.

For PC makers, trying to bridge the gap between notebooks and tablets with their swanky new ultrabooks, perhaps this is a way that they can better differentiate their machines and get one over on the iPad and Android tablet army.

For user experience designers, if a standard does emerge that can be embedded into browsers, then web pages can be made more interactive, with drag and drop functionality improved and other gestures employed. Driven by the human hand, body motion or facial gestures and so on, websites could break away from the text and pictures dynamic that has existed since the first Mosaic pages. What would you do with your site if such control schemes became common?