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The (near-term) future of computer technology – Part 1

The crystal ball is somewhat cloudy, but here are my thoughts on user interfaces and their adoption.

User interfaces on computing devices

Alphabetically, these are the practical computer-interface options we know today:

  • Heads-up Display (HUD) – Military displays have been based on HUD technology for decades.  Basic concept is to provide see-through information that is available within the area of vision without the need to look around.
  • Motion sensing – Motion allows the user to direct through body motions; you can lump the joystick and mouse in this category, but, preferably, Motion is done without manipulating a physical device.
  • Projection – A key component of HUD, it could enhance or replace displays, especially on mobile devices that can be difficult to read due to their small size.  Projection, combined with Motion, will get interesting when you can gesture within a larger image projected onto a nearby surface.
  • Speech recognition with text-to-speech or TTS – Older technologies (a blind friend has had both since the late-80s), but computer processing is now robust enough to support Speech for mainstream use.
  • Touch displays – Touch has been around since the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that manufacturing costs of touch displays decreased to assist with the widespread adoption of mobile devices.  Touch simplifies the user interface by removing the need for separate keyboards (and mice), but generally mimics the function of a keyboard when inputting significant amounts of text.
  • Type – I’d define this as old-school typing on a separate keyboard, usually with a mouse to assist; can’t seem to get rid of this one since it is so inexpensive and since most (all?) computers still support its use.

Some examples with their approximate costs:

  • Google Glass – Combines HUD with Speech in an eye-glass format; $1,500.
  • Microsoft Table – Touch with Projection on a table-top surface; just $8,400.
  • Nitendo’s Wii – Maybe not so new, but Motion for game consoles that was revolutionary in the mid-2000s; about $130.
  • Keyboard plus mouse – Older than dirt, but you can get both for under $15.

Adoption of user interfaces within the generational divide

In terms of adopting new interfaces, I think that much depends on your age group:

  • Younger folk (less than 30 years old) take naturally to the newest and fastest; they’ll still Type via Touch (reluctantly, usually by abbreviating wherever possible), but HUD, Motion, and Projection, are their future.  (Not quite so sure about the use of Speech in this group; do people under 30 talk to others on their phone or do they only text one another?)
  • Mid-range (call it 30 to 55 years old) people can adapt, but it gets tougher as you advance (age-wise) within this group.  I figure these folk Speak, Type and Touch, but would be willing to migrate to other options if they are easy to deploy and inexpensive to own.  Full-size keyboards and mice will remain (and, hopefully, die) with this group.
  • Older (over 55) folk are less adaptable, but can cope with current technology.  Switching platforms is a challenge, even if the interface is conceptually easier to grasp and use.  Some can learn how to use other options, but I suspect most will stay with what they know: Touch and Type.

From my experience:

  • I have had computing experience since high school.  While training my dad on Microsoft Windows, I was struck by the amount of effort required to transfer knowledge; the concepts were tough for my dad, who had no computing background, to assimilate.
  • My son, who grew up with graphic-intensive video games, has a broad grasp of current technologies and flexible fingers; he always looks pained when demonstrating basic touch-screen usage to me on my mobile phone.  (It doesn’t help that I can barely see the screen and that my thumbs tend to stray away from their intended targets, especially in portrait mode.)

Basically; you can teach an aging human a new interface, but it takes some work.