Microsoft makes a gesture at 'touch computing'

In a few years, users could move windows across their computer screens with a gesture and print out encrypted picture identification cards on color printers.

Or at least that's what Microsoft Research promised in a demonstration last month of its latest whiz-bang inventions.

One was reminiscent of the film 'Minority Report,' in which Tom Cruise's character shifted computer images across a large screen with the palms of his hands.

Microsoft Corp.'s research group is working on an alternative to the mouse, called GWindows, short for Gesture Windows. In the demonstration, users dragged and dropped windows with their bare hands, though they couldn't resize or rotate windows or click on links.

At the company's Research Open Day in Washington, two Web cameras measured the depth of an onscreen object and, through image processing software, made it obey the commands of the nearest moving object'in this case, researcher Andy Wilson's hands.

Wilson said government agencies likely wouldn't adopt the technology soon, although it now works with Microsoft PowerPoint and Internet Explorer, and for voice recognition, in tandem with a microphone and Microsoft's speech application programming interface.

'This is still too radical for most users,' he said. 'Windows was made for the mouse and keyboard. Everything is tailored for the mouse.'

The similarity to the Steven Spielberg flick wasn't coincidental, he said, because he and the film's special effects technical adviser were graduate students together. The big-screen exposure 'was the best thing that could have happened to this work,' he said. 'Everyone knows what I'm talking about.'

Another project, called Scalable Fabric, minimized groups of windows to a corner where they remained visible, then saved their contents on the hard drive.

Yet another project increased the resolution of text on LCDs of mobile and handheld devices to make it look more like words on paper.

The researchers also showed off ID technology called Face Certs, which compresses a digital image of an employee's facial features plus name and title into an encrypted bar code that can be printed and read by scanners.

Face Certs uses an encryption algorithm from RSA Security Inc. of Bedford, Mass., to make a private key, controlled by the administrator, and a public key used by a scanner to verify the bar code's contents against the cardholder's face and name, which also appear on the printout.

Microsoft is promoting Face Certs, now in the prototype stage, as a low-cost alternative to smart cards or biometric authentication. For the government's large user population, 'you have to have a solution that's really, really cheap,' researcher Nebojsa Jojic said. 'You can run this on almost any color printer.'

Portable scanners cost about $90 each, Jojic estimated, and printer paper would put far less of a strain on government budgets than smart cards or holograms. He claimed the system would be as secure as smart cards.

'This can't be forged because of the bar code,' he said. And facial detail is precise because 'the compression technology can take tens of kilobytes down to 2,000 bits.'

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