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IT interfaces heading for Star Trek future

THE EARLY PHASE of any new technology sees experimentation and a wide variation of controls and protocols. But after some time, an acceptable norm is established as customers make their purchasing preferences clear. However, there are some exceptions. Take cars, for example: they have had rudder bars, levers, pedals and wheels for steering; pedals for brake, accelerator, clutch, lights and horn; levers for gears, brakes and accelerator. But the interface has still not stabilised. How come? The most recent agent of perpetual change has been mechatronics and IT.

Many cars now have more microprocessors than electric motors/actuators, and far more computing power than most light aircraft. The electronics element is now a higher proportion of the total cost than all the metal. And no great surprise: IT is affecting the driver interface. Along with my mobile phone, TV, Blu-ray player, HiFi, my car now has to boot up.

I’m no longer driving a car; I’m driving a collection of networked computers. And every car I buy, hire and use is different. Keys, no keys, proximity detectors, ID checkers, press a button, turn a knob, touch a screen, click a mouse. The variations seem endless, and there is little sign of any convergence.

Two things are surprising in this game of rapid change: normal mortals are coping well without any formal training, and a number of ancient elements are enjoying surprising longevity. The QWERTY keyboard was invented in 1878 but refuses to die, and the mouse appeared before 1965. In the world of IT, 40 years is a very long time, and touch screens are now commonplace, with gestures, facial expression and gaze making early inroads on our gaming and entertainment devices.

So IT interface stability doesn’t look to be coming any time soon either, and Google glasses are but one example. The truth is that this “heads up technology” has been experimented with for more than 30 years and has never come up to par because it is big, ugly, and hurts your eyes. So will Google succeed? No one knows, and it is more a question of fashion than technology. Bluetooth earpieces, ear buds and headphones looked absurd 20 years ago – now they are the norm.

In my view, a far better technology to replace that ‘eye-screen’ is a laser writer that sprays the photons directly through the iris and onto the retina. It is smaller, uses less power, and does not block your vision. The downside is a psychological one: shining a laser into the eye.

So where is this all going? We are heading for a Star Trek future where our IT devices migrate from solid blocks to become far more compact items. And like the crew of the starship Enterprise, we can look forward to using any screen anytime anywhere.

The biggest opportunity is just speaking with a computer. Speaking to a computer with low levels of error has been possible for more than 25 years, but only in quiet places. Background noise is a conversation killer. To overcome this we have to use artificial intelligence capable of decoding the most likely meaning of successive sentences. Until recently, humans reigned supreme in this but we are being overtaken by machines. Soon conversational interfaces will humanise everything, and our relationship with technology will change – but I’d put money on QWERTY and the mouse still being around.

As for our cars, driverless vehicles are now licensed in four US states. They are becoming networked, with the ability to provide new ‘baton-passing’ networks for real-time traffic management. And of course, just as hybrid and electric vehicles store charge, our cars will store bits. A small portent of things to come: one car I use has its own low-power WiFi network just to make sure I never have to be offline.

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