Voice, gestures might eventually command pc

Personal Computers

December 01, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

THE ANNUAL fall Comdex trade show always offers a good look at computing's near future, but once in a while it provides glimmers of something more. Several offerings at this year's event hinted that computer users may be closer to interacting differently with their machines.

One fine day, people may be talking to their computers more and swearing at them less and using familiar gestures instead of mouse clicks to indicate their intentions.

How might computing involve people's senses in more natural ways? Mark Lucente, a researcher with International Business Machines Corp., showed a few of his ideas, pointing to a molecule on a big computer screen and moving it by merely gesturing with his hands. When he pointed to an on-screen ball and said, "Move it there," the ball obediently took its new spot.

That sort of thing has been seen before, particularly in a well-known MIT Media Lab demonstration called "Put That There," but this one was unusual in that the only equipment Lucente wore was a lapel microphone. Instead of using information from special gloves or other cumbersome apparatus, his system used software to analyze images from a camera mounted above the screen to recognize his gestures (and mine, when I tried it).

Although the demonstration was run on a PC, it is safe to say it will not be appearing on your home computer anytime soon. The PC in question was a very expensive, souped-up model with four powerful microprocessors working in tandem. Still, the session made Lucente's point that as time goes by, people will be interacting with their computers in ways that have nothing whatever to do with the mice and keyboards they use today and that bring several of their senses into play at once.

Some IBM technology closer to store shelves drives the point home. Here, the interaction happens when one simply writes on a standard yellow legal pad. A special pen transmits what the user writes to an electronic clipboard that holds the paper, and when the clipboard is connected to a computer, it can display an image on the screen that matches the ink-on-paper sketch.

Unlike writing on a graphics tablet, the experience here is precisely what one expects, with added digital benefits that do not yet include advanced handwriting recognition but certainly might someday. The product, called Crosspad, will be released early next year by the Cross Pen Computing Group, a division of the A. T. Cross Co.

Continuous-speech dictation, a technology I would nominate as the most important of the year, continues to gain ground. Now that people can talk to their computers and have them take down what is said with reasonable accuracy, the next step is to let it transcribe what users say when they are not sitting at their machines.

The Norcom Electronics Corp., of Trumbull, Conn., showed a pocket microcassette recorder that lets users record the voice just about anywhere and feed it through a special adapter into the excellent Naturally Speaking program from Dragon Systems Inc., whenever they wish.

A demonstration worked surprisingly well, even on the very noisy convention floor.

Olympus America Inc., showed a different way to do much the same thing. Its little D1000 model records one's voice on a tiny digital memory card. Early next year, the company will release a PC Card caddy and a serial dock that let users send the voice data from the memory card to a standard PC and transcribe it with IBM's Via Voice software. But one major drawback is that memory cards are far more expensive than microcassettes.

If they truly work as promised, these systems could be a boon for those who take voice notes and then spend hours transcribing them or trying to find tape passages they really need.

But it will take more work before the software can handle interviews and group meetings with much accuracy, because the programs are at their best only when they are trained to understand a particular speaker.

Under siege, the mouse is pushing back, literally. The Immersion Co., whose force-feedback technology made its first public appearance in joysticks, showed a working prototype of its Feelit mouse. The device comes attached to its own pad and can be programmed to simulate various tactile sensations. The company hopes to make it available sometime next year for about $140.

Demonstration programs suggested that it can provide useful feedback about where the cursor happens to be. Today, when you roll over a spot on a graphic in a Web page screen, you can tell whether it is clickable only from a change in the cursor's shape. With the Feelit mouse, you can actually feel a bit of resistance that lets you know that the spot is "live."

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