Take me to your leader

Take me to your leaderChanging their human interface is the way to broaden the appeal of the compute, says Steve Bush reports
Two beige boxes and a keyboard. This has been the computer ever since the first IBM PC appeared, when Big Blue convinced us that you could have a computer on your desk without needing a soldering iron alongside it.
Developing this concept has brought computing to a quarter of households in the developed world.
Underpinning this success has been the windows-icons-mouse graphical environment. Once you get the hang of it, and accept entering text through a keyboard, you can use a computer for most ‘serious’ applications. Add a joystick and you have a games machine – come to think of it, the joystick is probably the reason why so many homes have a computer.  
 
  No more keyboard?… Speak to it and it does something. PCs could do worse than follow the Furby model of human interraction.
But what next? What else can be done to make computers usable and attractive to the 75 per cent that don’t yet own one.
Speech recognition is an obvious development that is on its way. If you can ask:”How much can Iafford to spend this month?” and get a proper answer from your computer, without having to boot-up special software or repeat the question eight times, you have a machine that would interested many people.
Speech recognition is nowhere near good enough yet. There are packages that are fine for dictation, but language context processing still falls short of the mark. And packages are either speaker dependent, so need a lot of training, or have limited vocabularies. I have seen a very good package for dictating radiography results in German, for instance.
Gesture recognition is another development that, although not as profound as speech recognition, could increase the utility of computers. Imagine sitting back and waving at the computer, in what ever guise it is, to change the TV channel or close the curtains. Again, this technology is still in its infancy but already it is at a stage where you can play the paper-scissors-rock game with a notebook computer.
The Massachusetts institute of Technology Physics and Media Group has an electric field sensing technology called ‘the fish’ (because some fish use similar mechanisms to sense their environments). This can map a conductive object in three dimensions, enabling a computer to sense large parts of a person for control clues. For games, this could spell the end of the sensor glove and the beginning of a far more realistic personal presence in virtual reality games.
Facial analysis is a favourite, along with gesture recognition, of Japanese researchers. By identifying certain key points on a person’s face, and measuring their relative positions and movements, computers have been programmed to tell whether the operator is happy, sad, scared or in one of several other emotional states. Not perhaps a feature that will appear in word processors, but something that could front-up an auto-doctor for the home, or an intelligent bathroom mirror: “Oh, you look tired today, I’ll tell the auto-kettle to make you a nice cup of tea.” – and so on.
On the subject of sound, computers are already taking on the trappings of hi-fi systems. Quality is rising and 3D sound systems, using two speakers and psychoacoustic processing, abound. The MP3 music encoding standard for portable all-digital audio playback may be the beginning of a complete merger.
Microdisplays are coming on a treat, too. Several companies are offering competent displays based on silicon backplanes LCDs. These will soon be the basis of a new generation of virtual reality games headsets, but more importantly could lead to a new style of computer. Perhaps the long-awaited wearable computer, and mail-browsers built into hand-held devices.
Whatever technology appears, to make computers more attractive to those unimpressed by megahertz and megabits will need far more natural means of interaction and far more useful applications.
We need benign HALs in the home rather than two-box techno-toys.


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