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In your face, Interface!

In the beginning, man created the keyboard and he saw that it was good. It finally allowed efficient input into computers in a format which modern man could understand. Inserting code into a machine no longer required the use of complex punch cards, or pushing little relays in the correct order. No, now they could actually use, almost, real text to control the processing beast.

When the only visibility of what was going on was text based terminals, the world was a happy place and no-one really needed to worry about other input methods. There were short lived implementations of touch or pen-based technology in order to highlight areas of the screen, however as we became more efficient at working our way around the display with a keyboard, these eventually died out in the generic workplace, of course as we’re seeing only to re-emerge decades later.

Then someone had the bright idea of using graphics. The keyboard guys were out of their league and something had to come up, to whit, the mouse. Given a little pointer and a strange ball encased in plastic, possibly the single most important input method ever devised had been born. I could make it look like I’ve done my research and go into the how’s and why’s of these inventions (Although, yes I do know who Douglas Engelbart is); however this isn’t the point of this article. What I want to illustrate today is where we go from here.

The mouse and keyboard combo has been with us for over forty years in some shape or form, more recently as a common desktop device for maybe the last fifteen. Given the speed at which technology has progressed, you will forgive yourself for wondering why nothing new has come along. Especially as for at least the last ten years people have been hammering on about touch-screen technology, retina based input or voice control.

"The mouse and keyboard combo has been with us for over forty years in some shape or form.. Given the speed at which technology has progressed, you will forgive yourself for wondering why nothing new has come along."

Let’s take a look at all those films and shows which claim to know how input will be based in the future; for those Trekkies (or is it Trekkers) the most obvious one of these will be Voice Control. Captain Picard, boldly goes to state what he would like the computer to do, whether that is making a cup of Tea, Earl Grey… Hot or raining photon death down upon the Borg. Everything they are capable of doing is handled by voice control, which obviously makes you wonder why they have any actual touch screen terminals on the ship anyway. I digress; they paint a world where we’ll all be talking to our vacuum cleaners without a second thought.

Now, unless there’s a drastic change in business activity over the next 500 years or so, companies will still operate more or less similarly than they do now in order to do business. They will still have employees, reports will need to be filed, gossipers will gather around the tea room and people will still send each other steamy Emails. The human psyche will not change, even if the technology which allows them to exercise it does. Clearly with voice control you lose any expectation of privacy. You are in the open plan office of the future; picture this:

Bob: Computer, begin appraisal document 220423/Johnson, Bob.

Computer: Please fill out section one. Team working.

Bob: *cough* I find working with Ted in accounting regularly is hindering my progress.

Ted: Gee Bob, that’s a little unfair don’t you think?

Bob: Uh, I’m going to find a meeting room to do this.

Ted: Computer, Open Email. Recipient: Williams, Stephen.

Computer: Begin Email.

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Chris Caines

Ted: Steve, Bob’s such an asshole; you won’t believe what he said about me.

Bob: Hey!

Computer: New Email has arrived. Sender, Jones, Teresa.

Ted: Open Email.

Computer: Ted, I want your big hunk of man-love out by the copier.

Brenda: You two timing jerk!

Let’s face it; voice control is dead in the water for anything other than base level control of systems. There is no way anyone is going to give up the option to silently and confidentially access and manipulate data on the network, otherwise the implications of it would cause a rift in the space/time continuum. I’m happy enough coming into my house and saying ‘Lights’ or ‘TV, Channel 202’, however I’m not going to stand in the garden trying to convince my lawnmower to put itself back in the shed.

"We need to do something about it now as RSI is already becoming a major problem after only a few years of use and my children’s generation will be the first to potentially be using a mouse their entire lives."

As I have stated back in my tablet PC article, touch screen technology is far more appropriate for input than people seem to be interested in. It is an absolutely perfect method for controlling the screen and with a few little wrinkles to iron out, could replace the mouse in just a few years. Artistic licence aside, did no-one watch Minority Report, watching Tom Cruise wildly gesticulating at the virtual screen and think ‘O.K. Now that really is cool’. Best of all however, it seemed natural. It seemed that something we learn from birth, i.e. physically handling objects in order to manipulate them, would be the most obvious way of controlling computers. I want to be able to throw windows around, I want to be able to pull menus down with my finger and flick errant files into the trash.

Another thing people may have missed are the long term implications of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. The mouse has been one of the biggest contributors to RSI in the workplace, the movements and motor functions we need to exercise in order to operate them are alien to us which are why long term mousing can cause us such problems. However, physically moving your hand and arm to control an on-screen object is surely so much more natural? We need to do something about it now as RSI is already becoming a major problem after only a few years of use and my children’s generation will be the first to potentially be using a mouse their entire lives. Believe me, evolution isn’t going to catch up that quickly.

The unfortunate brick-wall for this concept is cost. It’s clear that big, expensive touch screens are not within the reach of the majority of either home or office users and because of this, people are unwilling to invest the time in writing touch screen friendly operating systems and applications. I’d love to see the day when I never need a mouse on my desk again; however I think it’ll be a long time coming and am generally envious of the time when my children or their children are using the next big thing in input technology on a day to day basis. I have hopes of 3D Holographic screens, sensory input devices and all manner of interesting technology to allow you to send an Email complaining someone has left the milk out on the counter again.