New keys to driving your computer

Eyes, voice, even brain waves may control future machines

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Computers are about to shrink even further and find their way into more and more aspects of life, thanks to an abundance of new ways to communicate with them.

By 2015, computers will fit into a wristwatch and be powerful enough to speak and understand, says Gaston Bastiaens, president of Learnout and Hauspie, a Massachusetts firm that develops computer speech interface products

We're "getting away from thinking about computers as computers," says David Marshak of Seybold Group, a Boston consulting firm.

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Currently, a computer's size and function are restricted by the need for a keyboard large enough for typing and a monitor big enough to show lots of data.

But these design barriers are eroding as technological advances change the way people interact with the machines.

In the strongest signal yet of what's to come, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates last month revealed details about the next version of Windows, the operating system that powers most personal computers.

Windows 2000 will include speech recognition (you talk, the computer responds) and reproduction (the computer talks, you respond) and the ability to interface directly with a digital camera.

As the cameras become cheaper, they will soon become standard equipment for PCs, similar to stereo speakers.

That prospect opens a new range of activities. ePlanet in San Mateo, Calif., for example, will begin marketing games that use a camera to put a kid's image into the computer screen.

Kids can see themselves interacting with favorite cartoon characters, or they can play video games such as pinball by standing in front of the computer and moving their arms to simulate flippers. The games are due in toy stores this fall.

Adults can transmit their image over Internet phones, which means they can see and talk to people on the other side of the globe for pennies a minute.

A bit farther into the future - but not too far - computer users should be able to follow links on the World Wide Web simply by pointing at them from in front of the computer -or even looking at them and blinking.

Or they could use digital cameras to become actors in their own movie or graduate-school case study.

And that's only the beginning.

"Once we get good at speech [recognition], it will become the main way we interface with our computers," predicts Vaughn Pratt, a computer science professor at Stanford University.

It's a big improvement over a keyboard because everyone knows it, Dr. Pratt says.

In the interim, he is working on a gesturing language that computers can recognize until speech recognition becomes reliable -in about 10 years, he figures.

While today's speech programs can understand large vocabularies, they still struggle to understand different speakers especially in noisy rooms, he says.

The latest voice-activated car phones can dial numbers as you speak them, but are accurate only about 75 percent of the time.

Handwriting recognition may be another easy way for people to talk to computers, Pratt says. Like speech, it requires no special training.

A.T. Cross, the pen maker, sells an electronic pad that stores writing as well as pictures on a computer.

Other emerging technologies include eyeball-tracking glasses, even brain-wave measurements.

While brain-wave studies have made little progress so far, optics now look promising, Pratt says.

Some researchers, such as Kevin Warnick, head of the Cybernetics department at the University of Reading, England, have even experimented with embedding computer chips in people. When they walk into a room, the chips can automatically identify them, turn on the lights, desktop computer, and their favorite music, for instance.

Like all other computer developments, these advances hinge on Moore's law, says Mr. Bastiaens.

Gordon Moore, co-founder of computer chipmaker Intel Corp, postulated in 1965 that computer processing power would double every 18 months. At the same time, chip size and price would be cut in half.

Dr. Moore's law hasn't failed yet.

*Send comments to: evarts@csmonitor.com

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