OPEN YOUR MIND TO COMPUTER IMPLANTS
It's 5:00 a.m. It's dark. My daughter, Catie, and I have just finished doing "her" paper route. It's a Tuesday morning, and the routine never varies. Deliver the papers. Feed Mowie the cat. Take the trash out to the curb. Brew a fresh pot of coffee. Now, steaming cup of coffee in hand, I trudge up the stairs to my study, where I spend many long minutes staring with bleary eyes into an empty computer screen.
Suddenly my fingers start to itch. I feel a subliminal, submuscular trembling begin to wriggle up my nerve fibers. In anticipation, I place my fingers on the keyboard. Miraculously the fingers begin tapping, and words appear magically on the computer screen. The cursor flies across the screen like a kite, sweeping across the blue sky, uncovering clouds shaped like letters, words, entire sentences.
I push away from the keyboard and gaze fondly at the screen. Now that's real writing, I think admiringly. I grab my empty coffee cup. Coffee break time!
As I sit watching the steam rise from my fresh cup of coffee, it occurs to me how strange it is that we interact with our computers by using a keyboard. Think about it. Dancing fingers. Ballerina fingertips that tap and skip across the keys. Is this normal? Have we as a species spent millions of years evolving just for this moment—so we could poke a few keys and communicate with a computer?
Isn't there a better way?
We all know that computers require input through a keyboard because that's the way they evolved. Once upon a time (approximately 40 years ago), they were highly specialized beasts that required communication through special symbols—originally numerical, later alphanumerical. First cables were used, later switches on the computer's front panel. For a while computer punch cards were in vogue. Finally it occurred to someone that perhaps the simplest solution was to just attach a QWERTY, typewriterlike keyboard to the machines and have at it.
But it's no longer the 1940s and 1950s. It's 1990, and maybe it's time to look beyond keyboards. After all, how many regular human beings actually feel cozy around a keyboard anyway?
One of the most advanced computers to grace the movie screen in recent years was Johnny Five, the hero of the two Short Circuit movies. Johnny loved input. But did you ever see him getting it through a keyboard? Never. Instead he used his powerful optical sensors (his eyes), auditory sensors (his ears), and tactile sensors (his fingers and hands) to gain his prodigious knowledge of the real world.
In addition, Johnny looked distinctly uncomputerlike. Instead of sitting on someone's desk meekly and quietly waiting for the gentle tap of little keys, he was rolling around cities and forests, combing the countryside for more input. "Input! Input!" he cried. "More input!"
Johnny Five is a good example of a computer that doesn't look like a computer. There are many more examples in everyday life. Take your car or your wristwatch. Take your telephone, your microwave, your video camera, your CD, or your Walkman. Or how about fax machines and phone mail at offices? All these are computers. Some still have keys, control panels, or buttons, but they accept other forms of input as well—images, voices, light waves, and so on.
As computer chips keep getting smaller and more powerful, the pressure will grow to transform desktop computers into something totally new. Already, incredibly powerful computers can fit in a briefcase, on your lap, or even in your pocket. A new computer from Sony lets you write on the computer screen with a plastic stylus. A new touchscreen from IBM lets you point at the screen and abandon the keyboard entirely!
If computers keep shrinking, it will soon get impractical to try to attach a full QWERTY keyboard. For many years experts have been predicting that computers of the future will be built right into our clothing—our eyeglasses, our credit cards, our shirts, even our underwear and socks.
In his award-winning book Neuromancer, William Gibson speculates that in the future computers will become so small that they'll be able to dangle from necklaces, hang from our ears like earrings, or nestle inside of fillings in our teeth. Gibson imagines that human-computer interfaces will evolve into small "terminals" implanted in our skulls directly behind our ears. We'll carry small cartons of microsofts—intelligent cosmetic jewelry that contains huge databases, new skills libraries (like juggling or speaking French), and antennae (cellular phones the size of a sugar crystal).
Whenever we need to communicate with our computer, we'll just pop open the case, pull out a microsoft, and plug it into our head. Rich people will have real diamonds, emeralds, and pearls aboard their microsofts. The rest of us will settle for inexpensive, synthesized replicas.
So, what do you think? Write me and tell me your gut reaction to this question: How do you feel about your computer keyboard? Could you give it up if something better came along? What kinds of new computer interfaces can you imagine? Send your ideas to Fred D'Ignazio, COMPUTE's Gazette, 324 West Wendover Avenue, Greensboro, NC 27408.