Amazing new ways to interact with computers

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Going beyond keyboard and mouse

Even though technology development moves at a record speed, the way we interact with our computers using a keyboard and a mouse has stayed the same for over two decades. It is only in the past few years that enhancements in this area have started to appear in products available to us in the consumer market.

If you do a search on “baby using iPad” on YouTube, you will be astounded over the number of amazing videos of toddlers using iPads with ease. The multi-touch interface (which for example allows you to use two fingers on the screen to resize a picture) that Apple provides in both the iPad and the iPhone enables us to interact with these devices in an entirely new way – much more intuitive than any keyboard or mouse.

In Microsoft’s latest release of its operating system, Windows 7, it included Windows Touch, a technology that enables users to interact with the computer without a keyboard or mouse. In order for this to work, the hardware needs to support the interaction as well and today there are a number of computer manufacturers that have released computers with touch screens including HP and ASUS.

Humans as the remote control

As always, it’s the gaming industry that is the catalyst for technology enhancements. When Nintendo released Wii in 2006, we experienced an entirely new dimension of gaming. The Wii controller is used as a pointing device, and the movement of the controller is detected, meaning that you can move the controller around to interact with the game. Earlier this year Nintendo announced that they are launching a new version of Wii, called Wii U at the beginning of next year.

Another great example of how gaming is driving the developments of human-computer interaction is Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect which was launched in 2010. Kinect is an add-on to Xbox with cameras and a depth sensor technology that enables you to interact with the gaming console using body movements. The software technology also enables advanced gesture recognition, facial recognition and voice recognition so that you can control the gaming device by speaking to it.

Today, research is being done by teams outside of Microsoft to see how this technology can be used in other environments. One example is Tedesys, a technology startup in Cantabria, Spain, which is working on an application that will let doctors use the sensor while operating on patients. There is a very inspiring movie on the potential uses for this technology on YouTube called the “Kinect Effect”.

Bridging the gap between the physical and virtual world

Another truly amazing technology that redefines the way we interact with computers is the “surface computing” technology that has come out of the Microsoft Research. The first surface computer looked like a big table with a large screen that you could interact with. The surface technology, which can understand up to 52 touches at the same time, responds to natural hand gestures as well as physical objects placed on the surface.

The newest version of the surface computers uses something called “PixelSense”. This technology enables the surface to take a picture of the object placed on the surface using infrared light instead of a camera. The software then analyzes the picture and the information is sent to the computer. Very simplified you can think of it as a scanner, you put your business card on top of the table and the information is automatically scanned into the computer and the information, such as your name and your phone number is stored in the computer. This allows you to quick and easy transfer information from a piece for paper or any other type of object directly into the computer.

The screen of the newest surface computer, which was announced this month, is only 4 inches so it can be hung on a wall or embedded into furniture. You can see a cool video of the various different uses of the surface technology here.

Exciting years ahead

As you might notice I’m very excited about this new development. When I see my 15-month-old son go up and touch our big LCD screen in the living room (it’s not a touchscreen so nothing happens) I realize that he will interact with computers in a whole different way when he grows up than we are used to. Computers will be integrated into the walls and our furniture and information will be able to flow freely between the physical and the virtual world. Some people get very frightened when they picture this development, but I think of all the great things it brings – how doctors will be able to treat diseases in a much more efficient way, how knowledge and learning can be brought to those who don’t have the means to get a proper education today and how we can connect with friends and family even though they are located a thousand miles away. We are truly living in a fascinating time!

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