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Making 'Minority Report' computer navigation a reality

Say good-bye to the mouse, says sci-fi movie's technical adviser, who's trying to make Tom Cruise-style hand gestures commonplace.

BOSTON--Remember the Minority Report scenes in which Tom Cruise and others use their hands to manipulate data on giant computer screens?

One man is on a mission to bring that gestural interface technology to every personal computer.

John Underkoffler, the founder and chief scientist of Oblong Industries, gave a talk called "Cinema, Science and Innovation" on Friday night at the Museum of Science here.

"The mouse has had a good run, but it's time to say good-bye," Underkoffler said.

His company has an operating system, based on human hand gesturing, that enables the user to explore in a 3D plane. The system responds to the pitch, roll and yaw movements that come naturally to the hand and works with cameras that track the positions of targets placed on gloves.

"We really want to get this on every desktop, and that's what we are going to focus on doing until we either go out of business or (until) the next plane trip you take, the woman sitting next to you opens up her laptop and starts doing this," said Underkoffler, gesturing with his hands.

Underkoffler was inspired by his work as the science and technology adviser to Steven Spielberg for the film Minority Report. The team created the futuristic Washington headquarters portrayed in the film. When it came to the gestural interface, the production team's research and development came just shy of actually building it, according to Underkoffler.

"What had started in an academic environment passed through the Hollywood environment and back. Which means it's just like the movie, but it really works--which is really better," he said.

Famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Bill Mitchell, director of the Media Lab's Smart Cities research group and Underkoffler's mentor, said he is not surprised at Underkoffler's progress.

"Of everyone I know, John has the most profound understanding of how imaginative projectionism of the future in film affects real-life expectations of the future," Mitchell said as he introduced the Oblong founder, who received his Ph.D. from MIT.

"Sometimes the filmmakers--the science fiction writers--imagine stuff before the engineers do, and there is a feedback loop between fiction and science that seems to be influencing each other," Underkoffler said.

Oblong could create applications for air traffic control or for groups visually disseminating large and complicated data sets. Microsoft has also been experimenting with gestural interface through its TouchLight technology.