Heads up, Linux fans, Ubuntu's ditching menus

Canonical's Ubuntu flavor of Linux plans to take a radical step and introduce a unique heads-up style display for menus that responds to mouse, keyboard, and voice.

Ubuntu has announced a change to its version of Linux that ought to get hot-key junkies and voice-control enthusiasts alike to raise their heads with glee.

Ubuntu 12.04 will introduce in April a new Heads-Up Display for interacting with the operating system, wrote Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth. The HUD will allow you to "express your intent" with the operating system and the programs running on it, wrote Shuttleworth.

Currently, it's activated by hitting the Alt key, which opens a translucent box into which you can speak or type your commands. As you start to type the word Firefox, for example, the predictive menu will pull up launching Firefox as an option.

More than a streamlining of how the menu looks, though, Ubuntu 12.04 also will have extensive voice-command support. This Vocabulary User Interface, or VUI, will let you control Ubuntu by speaking to it. Shuttleworth explained that some of the benefits include fuzzy matching, in which imprecise commands are matched to user intent, and "smart" learning so the operating system can prioritize habitual behavior. It will also work with the system itself as well as the focused app. This means that the VUI is designed to let you go offline in Skype, or change your instant-message status through the HUD because, "those apps all talk to the indicator system."

"When you've been using it for a little while, it seems like it's reading your mind, in a good way," he wrote.

If Ubuntu 12.04 remains on schedule, the HUD will land on April 26.

His blog post is lengthy and worth reading for the way it details how the purpose of menus has driven their development. He also explains how he sees menus naturally transitioning to a VUI, even in traditional use cases like corporate environments. The VUI, he says, not only allows people to control their program by voice, but it also can learn repeated behaviors, thus making a computer use more productive.

Some of the innovations Ubuntu has attempted have suffered setbacks, he acknowledged. The biggest one being that it hid the menu structure before the replacement was ready.

Shuttleworth cautioned that there was still work to do on the HUD. Things like the secondary aspects of menus, the lack of discoverability, and other patterns of interaction have yet to be mapped.