As we approach the year 2001, we don’t yet have flying cars, a space program for the masses, or (thankfully) red-eyed artificial intelligences with a predilection for shooting crewmen out of airlocks. However, we still live in a time of great technological advancement. In last week’s poll we asked, "Which technologies do you most want to use on your Mac or on future Macs?" A number of these existing technologies may enhance future Macs – and a number are available today, if only in preliminary form.
Speech Recognition and Dictation — Garnering 58 percent of responses, speech recognition narrowly edged out All-Wireless Components as the most-requested technology. The capability to talk to your computer is available today in Apple’s own limited PlainTalk speech recognition (which ships as part of Mac OS 9), and in products like IBM’s ViaVoice, which offers continuous speech recognition on the Mac. (See Matt Neuburg’s article on PlainTalk in this issue, and last week’s review of ViaVoice.) Being able to talk to a computer is a long-running staple of science fiction; however, today’s products are specialized and restricted, so there’s plenty of room for the technology to expand. And if you think dictating a novel, letter, or email message sounds like paradise, remember that learning to dictate effectively is often more difficult than learning to type.
All-Wireless Components — The next-highest category, with 52 percent of the responses, means getting rid of the rat’s nest of cabling surrounding your Macintosh. Apple has recently taken a few steps in this area with AirPort wireless networking and the all-in-one USB, power, and video cables on its new displays. Wireless keyboards and mice have existed for many years, and wireless peripherals (like scanners, hard drives, and printers), and even wireless monitors are certainly within the realm of possibility. (Indeed, printers that can receive print jobs via infrared have been around for a while.)
Holographic or Heads-Up Displays — Long employed in movies and television, these options may be ways to replace monitors or traditional computer screens, and made up 31 percent of the responses. A holographic display could show a 3-D computer interface manifested in space in front of the user, although these may not be bright enough for many tasks or for outdoor use. Heads-up displays vary in implementation but use images that are superimposed or drawn in front of a user’s surroundings. Heads-up displays might appear as goggles or headsets which project an image directly on to the retina – perhaps ideal for PowerBook owners! – or which are projected onto a surface (such as a visor, glasses, or a windshield).
Handwriting Recognition — With 28 percent of responses, and tying with Extreme Portability, handwriting recognition is the capability for a computer to accept handwritten input, usually on a tablet or another pressure-sensitive area of a device. Apple’s now-defunct Newton PDA – particularly Newton 2.0 – offered good handwriting recognition on its entire screen; the ever-popular Palm devices recognize a stylized handwriting (Graffiti) in a small area at the bottom of the screen. Handwriting recognition is a comparatively real technology, but it has yet to make its way into mainstream personal computer products, possibly because of the added cost of providing a writing surface, and the difficulty (or impossibility) of replacing the keyboard on current computers.
Extreme Portability — Also known as "wearability," extreme portability means shrinking a computer system down to the point where it’s highly portable or can actually be worn by a person with little difficulty. There’s a great deal of research now into wearable computers, and this sort of portability is likely to use other technologies mentioned here – speech recognition, heads-up displays, wireless components, and more.
Biometric Security — Security-conscious readers, accounting for 20 percent of the responses, are looking forward to biometric security, which establishes the identity of a computer user using unique characteristic(s) of that person, rather than using a password or other access methods that aren’t tied to a particular individual. Mac OS 9’s Voice Verification feature is an example of biometric security in that it enables a person to log into a Macintosh by speaking a passphrase which the computer analyzes for similarity to recordings of the same person speaking the passphrase. Other forms of biometric security could include fingerprint or palm-print verification, or retinal scans.
VR or Immersive Interfaces — Nineteen percent of the responses were for these types of alternative interfaces, which plunge users into an artificial environment, possibly blocking some or all of the user’s perceptions of the physical world. Users typically manipulate data or interact with the computer using gestures (a haptic interface) and are sometimes represented by a computer-generated object called an avatar. The idea of virtual reality entered the popular consciousness with William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer and remains a staple of popular culture, as recently exemplified by the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix. Although current technology doesn’t live up to the pop-culture hype, early consumer-oriented VR products have already appeared, and virtual reality applications are performing growing roles in specialized fields like engineering and medicine. The technology has obvious mass-market applications in entertainment and games.
Brainwave Recognition — Fifteen percent of responses were registered for brainwave recognition, in which a device actually analyzes electrical signals in your brain and translates them to input for your computer or other devices. Brainwave-driven products are available today from IBVA Technologies – they’re a long way from telepathy, but they open up new possibilities for user interfaces and computer access for the disabled.
Cup Holder and Other — Of course, in this era of monster SUVs, what future Macintosh would be complete without a cup holder or three? The popular beverage storage device (which is not the same tray that holds your CDs) picked up 13 percent of responses, while 9 percent were thrown at the mysterious Other category. Only time – and a look through the TidBITS Talk discussion on the topic – will reveal the technologies for which those votes were cast.