Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Chuck the Keyboard and Mouse

Interacting with computers has changed over the years.

A keyboard has been the traditional way of communicating with computers. My first interaction with computers was on a teletype, but punched cards and punched paper tape were also popular. This was way back in the 1970s.

Keyboards are still around, but probably the most popular way to interact with computers came with the addition of a mouse. Now, virtually every computer has a mouse attached to it, whether it be a physical mouse, trackball, or some form of touchpad.

But all that’s changing. New and innovative ways are becoming very popular for interacting with computers.

Touch screens have been around for quite a while. Most were used for kiosks, such as what you’ll find at the Metro-North train stations for buying tickets. Touch screens are also quite popular in restaurants and other areas where a specific function is being performed.

But touch screens have not been very popular for people using computers in their homes or businesses.

This is because touch screens have typically been able only to sense a button being pressed.

New touch screen hardware and software allows computers to understand not only touches, but “gestures” such as sliding, stretching and shrinking, and other commands.

Apple’s iPhone and iTouch devices are the most common implementation of small touch screen applications. Unlocking an iPhone is done by sliding one’s finger on the screen. Owners of the device are also familiar with sliding through the album covers to find the songs they want.

Users of many of the iPhone and iTouch applications are also familiar with the device’s ability to sense motion and tilting. This is put to use in many games and also through some interesting functions, such as a bubble level like that used in construction.

Microsoft’s Surface technology (http://www.microsoft.com/surface/) is an example of how our interface with computers could also be changed dramatically. Typical demonstrations illustrate functions such as sorting photos and videos, social media applications and games in which hand interaction is more important.

Eventually, we’ll start seeing computer interactions much like Tom Cruise used in the movie “The Minority Report,” where the images were displayed in the air and he used his arms to manipulate the images. That’s still a few years off, but is a clear indication of where man-machine interfaces are going.

The iPhone and iTouch are remarkable devices and the interface is clearly impressive. What I see the interface doing is spawning many new uses of computers that were either too awkward or simply inconceivable with a traditional keyboard and mouse.

I don’t expect that the keyboard and mouse will ever fully disappear. Voice recognition technology is still a long way off so writing a letter, e-mail or text message still requires a keyboard or some similar interface. Working on a spreadsheet still requires typing in numbers and formulas. But a decade from now, I’m sure we’ll look back at these functions and chuckle at how old fashioned they are.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 3 June 2009.
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