Tuesday, March 19, 2013

When Science Fiction Becomes Reality

Science fiction has provided us with huge amounts of fun technology. Some of it even becomes real.

Start with space travel. Ever since people have stared at the night skies and seen the stars, we have wanted to travel into space. We developed rockets and spaceships, have been to the moon and now to Mars.

One of the most popular items from the "Star Trek" television series is the Communicator, essentially a mobile flip phone. Even Motorola and its StarTac phone a couple of decades ago modeled the design of the phone to mimic the "Star Trek" design.

In the series of books "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," by English writer Douglas Adams, the main characters, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, have a device with the same name as the books. The "Guide" is essentially a galaxywide tourist guide, but it is what we would know as a tablet or e-reader today, complete with text, photos and video.

Another "Star Trek" technology that is making great strides is what they called the "replicator." We now have 3D printers -- the Westport Library has three of them -- that can make a physical object from a computer.

For years, we've heard of videophones and the ability to see and talk to someone at the same time. At the low end of the videophone spectrum are products such as Skype that allow free video calls. At the high end, we have telepresence systems that use high-definition video technology to create the appearance that people from around the world are sitting in the same room.

The ability to use voice to talk to computers is also growing in popularity and usefulness. For a long time, computers have been able to convert text to speech to talk to us. However, the ability for us to talk to them and have them understand us has developed nicely over the past few years.

Most notably, Apple's Siri allows people to ask questions and give commands verbally and the computer mostly understands. Google's Android operating system has similar features. Both of these make computers easier for people to use and far safer if people elect to use their devices while driving.

Some "almost here" technologies that always seem to be just around the corner include jetpacks and flying cars. There are companies developing both of these, but they always seem to be a few years off and awfully expensive.

But the one technology that I really want is yet another "Star Trek" technology, the transporter. This is where one can get "beamed" from one location to another without having to ride in a car or airplane. As much as I like traveling, the ability to be beamed from one location to another would be amazing.

What's your favorite science fiction technology that either has become reality or that you really want? Send me your comments and I'll publish them in a future column.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 20 March 2013.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When Icons Don't Help

Icons are little pictures that usually represent something. Words are icons of a sort. For example, the word "tree" isn't really a tree, but it represents a tree. On your car's fuel gauge now there's typically a picture of a fuel pump like you'd see at a gas station.

Computers use icons all the time. This makes a lot of sense. Not only does it eliminate what would normally be written in different languages, but an icon tends to be smaller than a series of letters.

Over the years, a number of icons have come into being and generally work pretty well once you understand what they are. For example, to print, there's usually a little icon that looks like a box with a piece of paper coming out of it — a printer. For electricity, there's usually something that looks like a battery and typically something that looks like a plug when the battery is plugged in and charging.

But some icons are now out of date. Here are a few:

On my mobile phone, when I have a voicemail message, the icon is that of a small cassette tape, like one that used to be used on answering machines. Well, my answering machine hasn't used a cassette tape in decades. And I doubt that any school-age children have ever seen a cassette tape.

The icon in most applications to save a file is the image of a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Only people of my age even know what a floppy disk is, much less have seen one. Yet, there it is in the entire Office 2010 suite of products, as well as others.

Even the icon of a telephone is typically the old-style desk phone. I can't say when I've seen one of those in at least five years.

A good friend of mine reminded me over the weekend that on the iPad, the icon for the newsstand is a bookshelf.

If you look around, you'll see other examples of icons that at one time were quite meaningful, but whose relevance has diminished, if not been lost.

I really like the idea of icons. Having traveled in foreign countries where I don't speak the local language, icons have been extremely helpful in allowing me to navigate the country effectively.

Or when I've had to operate a piece of equipment with which I'm not familiar, having icons can greatly increase my ability to use it quickly and effectively — oftentimes without a manual.

As you look around, keep your eyes open for icons that help you understand the world and for icons that are past their prime.

Note that not all icons are just digital. My 8-year-old son recently saw a typewriter in someone's home. He asked what it was. He had never seen, much less used, a typewriter. For some, the typewriter as an icon is something that will be hard to let go of. Yet there's a new generation that has no idea what one is.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 6 March 2013.