BEELINE TO THE FUTURE: The Future of Computer Interfaces

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

If you’ve ever seen Minority Report you may have been impressed with Tom Cruise’s gesture-based computer interface. The interface was cool and cinematic, as Cruise waved his arms around in swirls of colors, graphics, and information, but it required too much effort, your arms would get tired after awhile.

But it does raise an interesting question: will human-technology interfaces be radically different in the future? What will replace the mouse and keyboard?

Macworld has a slideshow from MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group displaying 10 futuristic interfaces (http://www.macworld.com/article/163413/2011/11/10_visions_of_future_comp... - lsrc.rss_main).

The interfaces include augmented digital product display, a MemTable that allows workers to take notes and input information on a large digital table, an Infrared laser mouse, digital post-it notes, paper computers, forks with sensors (to help people lose weight and control their eating), JotWatch (wristwatch with stylus), etc. I actually found this collection of new interfaces rather disappointing. The digital post-it notes I already have on my Mac. The Infrared mouse could be useful, but really no more so than a Bluetooth mouse. The paper computers could be great if you could roll them up and carry them around with you, but overall MIT underwhelmed me.

MaximumPC provides a more interesting list of 15 peripherals (http://www.maximumpc.com/article/features/future_interfaces_15_periphera...). These include a Neural Impulse Actuator, which has been discontinued, but is a device you wear on your head that allows you to control the computer with thought (actually with facial ticks). A wireless headset for voiceless activation of a computer, MIT’s invisible Infrared mouse (again), a wearable gestural interface that uses natural hand gestures (ala Minority Report), Google Voice Search, NeuroSky Mindwave Headset (which monitors brainwaves), Multi-Touch Displays, Five-Finger Mouse, etc.

In “Science Fiction’s Take on the Future of Computers: Visionaries and Imaginaries,” a group of SF writers chime in on the future of computing (http://h30565.www3.hp.com/t5/Feature-Articles/Science-Fiction-s-Take-on-...). Mike Resnick, who admits he’s an old guy who fears computers, suggests that phones will soon have 3D holographic displays to help older people with poor eyesight. He points out that computers are not user friendly enough, and will be programmed to respond to spoken English rather than depend on complex commands.

Robert J. Sawyer sees computers developing a cooperative, artificial consciousness that will not be predatory because their intelligence did not evolve in a Darwinian survival of the fittest environment. Instead of an economy of scarcity, computers exist in an environment “of endless bounty, of unlimited copying.” We will learn about compassion from our computers.

Greg Bear predicts computers imprinted on our skin like tattoos. Dattoos will be important for both computing and fashion. Michael A. Stackpole foresees implanted sensors. Several other authors make predictions on the website.

I greatly enjoy my current computer interface, although it hasn’t taught me compassion and isn’t tattooed to my arm. My main workhorse is a 24-inch iMac with a dual monitor. I can spread work across two screens, place iTunes on the second monitor, or watch a video on one monitor and write about it on the other. I have a keyboard, a Bluetooth mouse, and a Magic track pad. The track pad has made me appreciate the touch-based gestures built into Apple’s operating system in recent years. On the trackpad, I can use multi-finger gestures to rotate pictures, zoom, switch applications, scroll, right click, page backwards and forwards, view a menu of all open applications, and push all windows to the side and return to the desktop. My understanding is that Windows 7 has most of these functions now, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

I still use a mouse because the track pad is not as good at precision pointing or moving objects across two screens. I also use an iPhone and an iPad, which are touch-based devices. The elegance and functionality of Apple’s touch based interface is still not equaled by Android or on PCs, although Apple’s competitors are getting closer.

Now Apple has a new interface, Siri, which is voice activation on the iPhone. Eventually Apple will probably incorporate Siri throughout its product line. There have been some early hiccups; for example, Siri has overloaded Apple’s servers, and the service has shut down, but the shut downs indicate Siri’s usefulness and popularity.

I haven’t used Siri yet, but I do think that natural language spoken commands will be an important future trend. I find my current iPhone useful, and I can’t justify splurging on a new one quite yet, but I would like to review Siri in the near future. I believe voice-activated computing will be extremely useful on phones and will supplement the keyboard and mouse over the next few years.

Also, it’s really about time for Apple and other computer companies to start sending review units of all their new products to Republibot. After all, I’m sure Apple’s executives are regular readers (well, maybe not).

I predict that the mouse and keyboard will be around a lot longer than many people think. However, voice activated computing will grow in importance. I am an excellent typist, but many people struggle with keyboard entry. Just talking into the computer will make computer use easier for many. In the past, we’ve had to learn the language of computers to use them. It is time for computers to respond to voice commands that are easy to use.

Check out the videos for Siri. There are YouTube videos of people jokingly asking Siri, “Where’s the hoes?” Siri responds with a list of local escort services. “I’m Drunk.” Siri lists local Taxi companies.

Touch entry will continue to be widely used on mobile devices. I’m skeptical about touch entry for laptops and desktops. I have a large iMac, and it would really not be useful to interact with it by reaching up and touching the screen. My Magic Trackpad is a far more convenient way to use touch-based gestures on a monitor than turning it parallel to the floor and touch typing.

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