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Living with Technology / A 30-year revolution in how we interact with computers

Published 7:13 am, Wednesday, January 23, 2013
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With a career in computers that spans more than 30 years, I've seen a lot of different ways in which people interact with computers. With each iteration, the usability of computers has become more accessible and easier for people to use.

My first experience was with punched cards that could hold only 80 characters of information. This required a dedicated device whose sole function was to punch combinations of holes into cards that represented letters, characters and symbols.

Around that time, "dumb terminals," that were essentially a small television set with a keyboard attached, started becoming popular. This saved huge amounts of time because people -- usually programmers -- could write, edit and execute their software programs without having to punch cards, hand their cards to a computer operator and wait a few minutes -- or hours -- to receive a printout back. Results were available almost instantly.

When personal computers appeared on the scene, they introduced the "mouse" that we're all familiar with by now. A breakthrough device at the time, the mouse introduced "point and click" to the way people interacted with computers.

The graphical user interface, or GUI, -- pronounced "gooey" -- was made popular by the Apple Macintosh computer and later Microsoft Windows. The idea of dragging things around on a screen was novel at the time and opened up computing to a very wide audience, especially non-technical users.

Jump forward a number of years and there are some pretty amazing technologies that have recently become popular.

Perhaps the most "disruptive" technology is the touch screen, made popular by the Apple iPad. The ability to perform commands by touching a screen instead of using a keyboard and a mouse is changing the nature of how people compute.

Another creative idea is the Kinect interface from Microsoft, where people simply move their hands around in the air and make gestures while the computer watches them and takes instructions based on the person's movements.

But the computer interface that has been sought out for the longest period of time is voice activation. Great strides have been made in getting a computer to understand human voices, in different languages, while eliminating background noise or distinguishing normal conversation from commands. Every year, the voice interfaces get better and better, mainly as a result of the availability of cheap and plentiful computational horsepower.

I do look forward to the day when I can interact with my computers using voice alone, but there will always be times when a keyboard and mouse or similar quiet interface will be preferable to speaking. Much as not every conversation should be public, not every command should be spoken, either.

I look forward to having multiple ways to interact with computers, especially for safety, such as driving a car, or when my hands are full, i.e., "car, please unlock the doors." Multiple ways to communicate with a computer will continue to make them more beneficial to more people, and that helps us all.

Mark Mathias is a Westport resident and has worked in information technology for more than 30 years. His "Living With Technology" appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at livingwithtechnology@mathias.org.