Voice, gesture, look: How will we operate devices and machines in the future?

From TV sets and stereo systems to lighting, we are now operating more and more devices by smartphone or even voice commands. 3D glasses and data gloves are used to provide support in Industry 4.0. Do connected devices on the Internet of Things still need a user interface of their own or will the classical interface soon be superseded as we control all systems by voice or movements of the hand or head?

Google unveiled its new Google Home speaker system on October 4. The neat little speaker is connected with the Internet and the user’s personal Google account via his or her home WLAN. The key feature is that Google Home recognizes and executes voice commands, making daily life easier. Users can, for example, switch music, TV or lights on in all rooms, check traffic conditions on the way to work or take a look at the evening’s movie program, be reminded of appointments or write a shopping list – and all by means of voice commands. Google Home replaces the smartphone or PC search and can control other Google systems such as the Nest smart home device, the Play Music streaming service, or Chromecast devices.



Amazon has a similar device, the Echo, in its product range, while Apple and Microsoft are banking on voice control for private customers with Siri and Cortana. In industry too, consideration is being given to improving or replacing the classic user interface of machines and devices.  

The robot as your friend and helper

The Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation (IOSB) in Karlsruhe, for instance, is working on secure human-robot interaction. In a demo video its research scientists show how a robot arm can be controlled by special gestures the robot recognizes from camera footage. Different sensors ensure safe interaction between humans and machines. 

Their colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute of Production Technology and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart have also developed a kind of robot arm to lend surgeons a hand in the operating room. Controlled by gestures, the mechanical assistant hands over the right instrument or holds an endoscope in the right place. Research scientists are working on an additional voice command system should the surgeon not have a hand free to make the requisite gestures.

The Smart Glove

In retail the tactile experience of buying might also be digitalized in the future. Scientists at the University of Bielefeld have developed a data glove with which to feel objects remotely. In a possible usage scenario the customer might take hold of the product virtually while online shopping. Weak electrical impulses or vibrations could stimulate the nerve endings of the customer’s fingers. A concept of this kind would further blur the borderline between online and stationary shopping. 

In logistics a data glove might, for example, make scanning goods easier and faster. The Czech automaker Skoda, for instance, now uses the ProGlove in its logistics department. The electronic glove with its built-in scanner is based on a research project of T-Systems, the Munich University of Technology and the Munich startup ProGlove that Deutsche Telekom funded as part of its Challenge Up! program. The glove not only records data like a conventional scanner but also indicates whether the right component is being used and whether work procedures are being followed correctly. “The glove helps our team to work faster, more efficiently and more accurately,” said Jiri Cee, director of Skoda brand logistics, at the presentation of the ProGlove at the end of August. 

Hands-free thanks to 3D and augmented reality

Skoda’s parent company Volkswagen has meanwhile introduced 3D data glasses in the logistics department of its Wolfsburg works. Order pickers receives all the information they need, such as part numbers or storage locations, on their spectacle displays and therefore have their hands free. Bosch also uses smart glasses with an augmented reality app for a pilot project in its warehouses. The operative needs only to look at a QR code with his glasses and can then process orders by voice commands.

Looking at the future with virtual reality

Virtual reality glasses, a further development of 3D glasses, have already begun to find uses in the world of work. The ManPowerGroup lets job applicants experience their future workplace in advance by means of a Zeiss VR One, while Machineering shows users virtually by means of an Oculus Rift a plant that has yet to be constructed, and IKEA customers can plan their future kitchen with HTC Vive virtual reality glasses.

That leaves only the personality

With voice and gesture control, 3D and VR glasses the interfaces between human and machine are shifting both in private life and the working world away from physical operation by means of buttons, keys and touchscreen displays to contact controls. Connected devices are becoming part of our environment, are reacting to humans and can be used intuitively. And the better the designers succeed in giving things a kind of personality – such as those of Cortana or Siri – the sooner humans will accept this new form of interaction with machines.

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