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Dated: Aug. 13, 2004

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Technological Advances

By Najmi

Personal computer has now become almost an essential part of many people’s life. The ubiquitous keyboard, mouse and the monitor are now the basic tools of trade in today’s technologically changing world. While one hand on the key board and the other on the mouse, one’s eye scan the monitor deciding on what to scroll, download or access on one’s pc. But will the PC itself remain unchanged through time? The answer is: Most probably not?

A host of new technologies underway are sure to change the way of personal computing. Its future promises to offer innovative technologies such as voice recognition, hand writing recognition and touch screens.

Says Rickson Sun, Director of research and development at IDEO, a product design consulting firm in California, "I don’t think anybody is in love with the PC here. We have spent millions of years evolving to this point, sort of hunting and gathering, moving around, not sitting down in front of screens."

Personal computer PC

There are many who still believe that the emerging technologies might not be the radical. While the mouse seems to have a limited life, the keyboard will most probably be around for many years.

The first keyboards and monitors, out during the 1960s were cathode ray tubes just like our conventional television sets, not the ones with the new plasma monitors.

The QWERTY keyboard, named after the first keys from the top left hand, were the same as the ones on typewriters. But after the advent of the graphical user interface (GUI), the keyboard has met with competition.

Doug Englebart developed the first "mouse" prototype in 1963 and it was very different from the one use today. There were three buttons on one end with a cable attached to the other and looked like a mouse with the three buttons looking like eyes and a nose and the cable that resembled a tale. That’s how the little computer device was named mouse.

The first modern PC, Alto, was developed in 1973 at Xerox’s Palo Alto research Center, PARC, eleven years before the Apple Macintosh made the mouse a mainstream consumer product. The mouse later became a standard device for PCs.

Over the period it went through improvements but not very large changes in its general functions. Later the trackball was used for laptops in its place. This also led to the emergence of LCD screens, which were thinner, and lighter version of the regular monitor. The actual change came in the form of PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistance).

According to Terry Winograd, professor of Computer Science at Stanford University "Almost every thing is getting miniaturized, especially the cellular phones as they are trying to merge with the PDA’s. My intention is that it (Voice Recognition) is going to hit as a power to do voice processing becomes doable at small machines, which it really isn’t yet", says Winograd. "You don’t want a little keyboard on your cell phone because it’s horrible to try to type on a little keyboard and you are already using a voice device, so for short things you’d rather say them," he adds.

But as Allan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University states, "Talking to computer is not that easy at present. The problem with auditory is you have to keep the information that the brain is processing serially. So you really couldn’t stand a computer that would be speaking to you at the rate that would be speaking to you at the rate that we put visual information on computer screen." Hedge also has reservations about handwriting recognition. "Any notion that we can replace keyboards with pen-based computing is widely misguided. The faster you can go with a pen is about a third the speed you can type. It’s a single channel output compared to multi channel output when you type, and that’s the limitation you have with the voice as well those technologies just have basic fundamental human limitation that usually get over looked." He also adds, "you can do a lot with 10 fingers. Your bandwidth out of 10 fingers working at once is larger then any other input device you have, which music is a great example for."

One of the ways, by which the keyboard and other devices will merge, is touch services.

"The surface itself acts as both keyboard and an input device, anywhere on the surface is active for you to move the cursor around", says Alan Hedge. "But also it has the advantage of allowing you to perform a variety of new gestural inputs that take care of operations that used to require a series of mouse clicks. For example the act of pulling your thumb and a finger together over a surface in a sort of nipping gesture to cut a piece of text out. So the whole thing becomes a very different kind of working environment".

Prototypes of these kinds of touch surfaces are already scheduled to hit the markets. Further steps will probably include integrating all three components. Rickson Sun noted while talking about a new e-ink technology (draw images electronically that would be far more portable then heavy cathode ray tube) that is being developed by many companies that "the displays are headed to areas where they are thinner lighter; they are piece of paper You will have high resolution, so you have lots of small type on a small piece of paper and they can update easily. Paper is thin, flexible and light weight."

Analysts seem to think that this is the fourth wave of computing after the use of mainframes, microcomputers and mini computers and personal computers. Does this mean that the era of PC’s is nearly at an end? According to Winograd, "the standard screen plus pointing device will stand out. I think you are still going have sometimes when you sit down, use your full attention and maximize throughput. Note that the current screen and keyboards are optimal, but it will be approximately that configuration. There are some thing for which work stations are highly optimized and you will probably never find anything that will be much better."

As always, it was a pleasure writing to you all. Hopefully, it will get you thought process running in various directions. Talk to you again next week.

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