Who needs a keyboard with these gadgets around? (input-output devices)
by Steven Anzovin
Carpal tunnel syndrome. Typist's neck. Weak back and abdominal muscles. Ailments of the computer age. And there in front of you sits the main culprit: you keyboard.
Mice aren't much better. They're often clumsy, and mouse fatigue is increasingly common. So I gave my keyboard and mouse to my 18-month-old daughter, who loves to type, and then checked out some alternatives.
The Wacom SD-510c graphics tablet for PCs and Macs (Wacom, Park 80 West, Plaza 2, Saddle Brook, New Jersey 07662; 201-265-4226; $695) is receiving a lot of press as a breakthrough tool for graphic artists. What's new about the Wacom is that the pen is cordless and pressure sensitive.
With the right paint software, such as Oasis from Time Arts (1425 Corporate Center Parkway, Santa Rosa, California 95407; 707-576-7722; $795; Macs only), you can get the look and feel of traditional media like acrylics, pastels, and watercolors. For example, you can emulate a watercolor brush stroke, with the color lightening and brush width thinning as you reduce pen pressure.
The PC version of the tablet works with any software that accepts a mouse, making it an excellent alternative for people more comfortable with a pen. It's small enough for your lap, and the pen only weighs a few grams.
As a drawing tool, the Wacom tablet has no peer, but pressure-sensitive input devices have real potential for use in a Windows-style GUI. For example, little gadgets at the corners of windows could let you page through a document faster or slower by varying the pen pressure or let you send a window to the back, bring it to the front, or even park it in the middle.
And why not adapt the Wacom pressure-sensitive technology for foot control of a computer? I'd like to see a "gas pedal" to increase my computer's speed when I'm in a hurry and a "brake" to keep the machine from outrunning my thoughts.
The Mac world offers more alternative input devices PC users should ask for. One gee-whiz tool is the Voice Navigator II from Articulate Systems (600 West Cummings Park, Suite 4500, Woburn, Massachusetts 01801; 617-876-5236; $795). Once you've trained it, you can speak any command or menu option into its microphone, and your Mac will obey instantly. The Voice Navigator has real potential as a mouse replacement, especially for people who need free hands. With this in mind, can verbal text entry be far behind?
If your Mac isn't powerful enough, you can really "play with power" with Transfinite System's Gold Brick (P.O. Box N, MIT Branch Post Office, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139-0903; 617-969-9570; $169-$245). This tiny interface lets you connect any Nintendo controller to a Mac through the ADB port. It works just like a mouse and even emulates some keyboard actions.
Hooking up a Nintendo to your Mac may sound odd, but keep in mind that toys like the Power Glove, Broderbund's UFORCE, and Nintendo's Power Pad are inexpensive and built like tanks, perfect for applications where ruggedness and replaceability are important.
The Gold Brick already has some unusual applications. At the Speech-Language Pathology Lab at northeastern University, experimenters Linda Farrier and Harriet Fell are using a Mac, a Gold Brick, and a Power Pad to develop a system called the Baby Babble Blanket, which allows speech-disabled babies to make meaningful sounds and initiate verable interactions. The Mac issues digitized sounds--babbling or any other noise, including words--according to how and where the baby moves around on the Power Pad. Farrier says the system could also be used as a biofeedback device for adults in physical therapy.
Wacom pen in left hand, Power Glove on right, and barking commands into the Voice Navigator, I tried to write this column but found that none of these gadgets could do the job sufficiently. I managed to rescue my keyboard and mouse from my daughter, but I'll never feel quite the same about them again.