[AI] 'Touch and talk'

renuka warriar erenuka at gmail.com
Fri Jun 20 11:25:25 EDT 2008

Date:19/06/2008 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/seta/2008/06/19/stories/2008061950051500.htm 

Sci Tech 

'Touch and talk' 

Keyboard and mouse may become passe soon 

- Photo: Special arrangement 
Two-in-one: This ultrasound machine from GE is both voice-activated and touch sensitive. 

It is not yet the end for keyboard and mouse. But unrelated product announcements last week, suggest that it might be the beginning of the end for these
electro-mechanical interfaces to computers and Internet access devices. Hewlett Packard has unveiled the revised editions of its TouchSmart PC, first launched
last year. 

New version 

Almost simultaneously, Apple showcased the new 3G version of its iconic iPhone, which virtually pioneered the use of touch to access the various 'smart'
functions of the handset. 

While the Tablet PCalso offered touch as a key component of its 'electronic slate' functionality, it was not very successful in the marketplace till recent
roll outs of smaller form-factor UMPCs or Ultra Mobile PCs gave the tablet a second lease of life. 

HCL's MiLeap Y or Allied Computers' ACi Ethos are two examples of made-in-India touch sensitive UMPCs. Microsoft's Surface Computer, extends the touch sensitive
screen to coffee table size; but this remains a pricey option for shops and public information providers rather than lay users.

Interface technology 

Meanwhile, touch as a device interface technology continues to evolve: On one hand 'haptics' (this means, simply, touch technology that touches back) which
was nascent when we first reported on it in this space a year ago ('Haptic technology set to touch all of us'; IT Trends, The Hindu, July 19, 2007), has
made considerable strides in the lab, but few applications have reached consumers. 

Nokia might just be the first to offer a key-less keyboard (yes!), where individual keys on a phone are replaced by an ultra touch-sensitive haptic pad
that produces a significant reaction, when the user punches a number. 

Touch-sensitive screens 

Another promising direction in touch-sensitive screens, is the one pioneered by Jeff Han, who has perfected technology for large multi-touch screens, accommodating
10 or 20 fingers at a time. 

Mitsubishi developed a Diamond Touch Table in an earlier era, with a similar functionality, but it seemed to have been an idea ahead of its time. Multiple
users ranged around a large screen can become collaborators and this might well be the 'killer application' for touch technology tomorrow.

Like basic touch technology, multi touch tends to use one of the three mainstream methods of achieving touch: 

Resistive: conductive surfaces held apart by spacer 'dots'. Touching a point closes the circuit and a voltage is generated; 

Capacitive: uses the capacitance of the human body; when a person touches the surface, a voltage drop is sensed; 

Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW): Sound wave reflectors along the edge of the glass; touching generates a change in sound amplitude.

For very large screens companies like Touchscreen.com have developed infra red touch technology to go with the plasma screens.

The next edition, after Vista, of Microsoft's PC operating system will feature advanced multi touch features. 

Connectivity devices 

These 'touching' developments have been almost parallel to those that have marked the industry's innovative use of voice as an interface for many connectivity
devices, especially hand held phones and car-based systems. 

The percentage of success, especially of products which promised to transcribe spoken words into machine-readable text, however, never reached levels where
they were worth the trouble of correction. 

But things are changing. Nuance Communications, the makers of the Dragon Naturally Speaking, speech recognition products for PCs, have perfected some of
best voice-command systems for mobile phones. Daniel Hong, at DataMonitor, feels voice commands are now poised to become mainstream applications. From
Motorola's Mobile TV sets to TomTom's GPS navigation devices, voice is now a standard interface. 

It is particularly meaningful in car-based navigation or email services, where the driver is unable or prevented by law, from operating a key board. 

Biomedical instruments 

The biomedical instruments industry has been an early user of combined voice and touch sensitive interfaces. GEHealthcare has a range of hospital diagnostic
equipment - the Logiq series of ultrasound machines is just one example - where touch screens complement voice-activated commands, leaving nurse or technician
to do other things with their hands.

Such combinations may soon be the rule rather than the exception in mass consumer products like PCs or handheld wireless Internet tools. 

Military users have already caught the potential of such interfaces in reducing the margin of error in mission-critical situations. 

A study in Canada at the Ecole Polytech de Montreal, found that operator response was 33 per cent better with voice commands compared to touch screens.

But in some military environments - the cockpit of a fighter aircraft or the operations room of a submarine or frigate - there will be situations where
entering strings of code is faster, more reliable, using touch rather than voice. The conclusion: Both technologies have much going for them, and a combination
might often work best.


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