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Microsoft puts finger on better gestures

At a conference this week, Microsoft is showcasing what might make for more natural multitouch gestures.

While much of the attention on multitouch surrounds what devices the interface will next find its way onto, Microsoft is also looking at how to improve the gestures themselves.

At a computer interface conference in Boston, Microsoft is presenting ideas for how to perform 27 different commands--ideas that stemmed by showing test subjects a set of commands and asking them to do the most logical gesture. Those that were popular among multiple people were the ones the researchers said made the most sense.

Microsoft Research used test subjects to try and create natural touch gestures to represent 27 common computer commands. Here was a popular suggestion for the "undo" command. Microsoft

"If they are going to be universal gestures we want them to be very natural," Microsoft researcher Meredith Morris said in an interview last week.

The research comes as the use of such gestures is starting to take off. Multitouch gesture controls are already an integrated part of the iPhone and Microsoft's Surface and are also supported on some notebook trackpads. Windows 7 adds operating system-level support for multitouch gestures.

While widely praised as intuitive, Microsoft's research shows only some of the gestures used on multitouch devices make sense, Morris said. Other gestures, particularly those that involve using a specific number of features, are actually not very intuitive, Morris said.

That's because people tend not to associate gestures with the number of features they use.

"They don't assign meaning to that," Morris said, noting that Microsoft's research showed people tended to use one, two or three fingers interchangably when performing a gesture. "We should be careful about that."

What users did like to do, Morris said, was make gestures in the air, something that today isn't supported by devices like the Surface or the iPhone, though other research prototypes have focused on mid-air gesture input.

"That speaks to how you might design next generation systems," Morris said. "You might want additional camera so you can begin to get some of these."

The most popular suggestion for summoning help was for a finger to draw the shape of a question mark. Microsoft

In some cases, Morris said the research suggested multiple ways of generating a command. To activate the "help" command, for example, the most popular suggestion was to draw a question mark on the surface with a finger. However, one participant suggested another way might to be to bring their hand toward themselves, as if to beckon for assistance.

Where the same suggestion was made by several people, Morris said her team tried to incorporate multiple gestures for the same command.

Morris is presenting a paper on the gesture research, as well as several other papers at the CHI 2009 conference, an event that brings academics and folks from the business world together to look at human-computer interaction. In all, Microsoft is presenting or co-presenting 25 papers, more than 10 percent of the total, Morris said.

Among the presentations Microsoft made at the event last year was MySong, a method for automatically adding background instruments to vocal tracks--a project that eventually became the publicly available Songsmith.

Here were the suggestions for two of the most often used commands--copy and paste. Microsoft