Over the past year we’ve seen lots of experimentation around user interface, ranging from infrared eye tracking (which has already found its way into mainstream smartphones) to incredibly accurate 3D motion controls. Today, Japan’s Fujitsu is showing off its take on the nontraditional interface — a combination scanner and camera that is somewhere between one of those laser virtual keyboards and a tablet screen that it’s showing off under the lengthy moniker "Next-Generation UI Enabling Operations via Hand Gestures and Finger Movements."

Use a tap-and-drag gesture to "clip" pieces from a document

Fujitsu might not spring to mind as a hotbed of innovation, but the company hasn’t shied away from taking risks on out-there ideas, whether that’s palm-scanning laptops or cellphones that make it easier to sneak around on your significant other. The new project they’re showing off today lets users interact with real-life documents as though they were on a computer screen, helping to bridge the digital divide in a country that’s still surprisingly reliant on dead tree technology. A demo scrapbooking application let us use a tap-and-drag gesture to "clip" pieces from a document, saving images of our selections using the built-in camera. Another similar application lets you make digital copies of sticky notes, which you can then group and move around the table without having to peel the notes off every time. Presumably this will make it easier to brainstorm in a group, although the idea seemed more like an afterthought than a core function of the product.

Fujitsu

The device can also detect depth and can distinguish where your fingertips are and what kind of gestures you’re performing with your hands using a jumble of geometric lines and points. One simple app to demo the depth detection let us manipulate a CAD drawing of the device in 3D space. The demo wasn’t hugely intuitive, and the geometric models that the machine was building out of our hands on the nearby TV was more impressive from a technical standpoint, but it could be handy if you need a 3D mouse for something.

We wondered how useful it would be on those rare occasions when you don't have a paper map

The last demo Fujitsu had to show off was an imagined business scenario with a would-be tourist looking up different travel destinations. When you slide a brochure under the camera’s gaze, the projector highlights different parts of the document to tell you it has additional information. You can expand these points of interest to see photos or videos and save the interesting spots to your clipboard. Next, once you’ve saved everything that catches your eye, you can find out where the things are physically located by laying a map on the table, which Fujitsu’s machine then overlays the highlights on top of. We wondered how useful it would be on those rare occasions when you don't have a paper map at hand, but Fujitsu told us that it would be easy to add things like web links to the set of information on display, which would probably be a more realistic use case.

All in all, we thought the scrapbooking feature seemed like the most useful application of the bunch. A device that can quickly grab an important snippet from an image or text document without requiring you to scan and crop things separately on your computer could be a real time-saver for paper-laden business people. Fujitsu tells us that the finished product should be out sometime in 2014, and while the company doesn’t have a price to share today, a rep tells us that it’s built using readily available components, so we’re not expecting it to break the bank.

Sam Byford contributed to this report