Friday, December 18, 2009

Is the man/machine interface stalled?

The first man-machine interface between computers and their operators was a row of flashing lights and an array of switches.

It was simple and, for the time, relatively effective.

However, we've come a long way since those early days and their crude interfaces.

Today we've replaced the flashing lights with cool flat-screen LCD displays and the switches have been usurped by the ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard and mouse.

So where to from here?

What's the next big step in making the interface between computers and their users even better?

Well for a long time it appeared as if voice recognition would be a big and important feature for future computers. That belief seems to have fallen by the wayside however, and even though such systems are now available, they're seldom used for anything other than directed telephone menus.

Even the long-awaited touch-screen seems to be a solution looking for a problem these days.

The technology is certainly available and at a very reasonable price -- but it simply hasn't been embraced by either manufacturers or users.

Why is that?

Well a recent survey of mobile phone users found that while touch screens are nice in theory, a surprisingly large number of people currently using the technology would prefer to go back to good old-fashioned keys.

The situation gets worse when you're in a desktop computing situation. Just try pointing at your screen a lot and you'll realise how heavy your arms get. Converting the upright screen into a desktop tablet that sits flat won't do much to help either. Then it will be taking up valuable real-estate and postural issues which can cause neck-fatigue raise their ugly head.

More exciting, and even less practical avenues for man/machine interaction are being touted almost every day.

There are those who believe that contact lenses with built in LEDs will provide "heads-up" display capabilities, allowing computer users to see the output of their machines without even needing a separate screen.

Successful tests have also been carried out with direct neural stimulation which allows the computer to totally bypass your eyes and deliver its output straight into your brain's optical region.

In the other direction, great advances are being made in the area of using thought to control computers. Now while this might be good news for those with physical disabilities, it's not likely to be useful at the office or while gaming at home on your PC.

No, it would appear very much as if we're stuck with our flat-panel screens, keyboards and mice for quite some time to come.

And you know, unless you welcome the prospect of plugging your PC directly into your brain, that's not such a bad thing.

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