Given the plunge in PC prices in recent months, by 2009, PCs will be nearly as affordable and popular as TV sets are today. The major stumbling block to this level of saturation is, of course, usability. What good is owning a powerful computer that's too complicated to use? Roy Want, a researcher with Xerox, is making it his mission to improve the relationship between man and machine. Want is experimenting with Invisible Interfaces, intuitive mechanisms that go way beyond the mice and keyboards that currently control PCs. "We're moving from very rigid, stationary machines to ones that are much more mobile and numerous," says Want. "There will be many computers distributed throughout your work environment, and as a result, you are more likely to have interaction on a physical basis with your computer as well as with the traditional keyboard and mouse. We have interfaces where you can tilt and press the housing of your computer, and it gives you the natural effects [of motion]." In one experiment, Want used a Palm Pilot combined with a tilt sensor to make a Rolodex-type product that scrolls through long lists when users tilt the machine--meaning users don't need the mouse or the arrow key. Other devices incorporating this unique interface are on the drawing board.
Computers of the future will also be much more aware of users' needs, says Want. Today, when you boot up your PC, it presents you with the same interface it presents your employees, spouse, kids or anyone else who uses your computer. "Tagging" technologies, in the form of a special badge worn by the user, will change all that. Your PC will send out radio signals that interrogate the badge, which will in turn tell the computer who you are, what you want to see on your desktop, what programs you want to work with, and what type of security clearance you have for manipulating the core system. Your PC will also know when you've stepped away from the screen and will fend off prying eyes until you return.
But your computer still won't be able to read your mind--at least not yet. In a recent experiment at Atlanta's Emory University, a tiny device designed to amplify brain signals and send them to special computers through a small antenna was implanted within the skull of a stroke victim who was both paralyzed and mute. The procedure gave the patient the ability to communicate by moving a cursor across a computer screen using just his thoughts. Want believes that although this type of brain surgery may be a bit too radical for most users, the understanding required to tap into neural signals is improving all the time, and with advances in brain-signal processing and nonintrusive measuring devices, a direct brain-to-computer interface (sans surgery) may be possible within the next 10 years.
Also in the works are new ways of viewing information on your computer. Palo Alto, California's Inxight (pronounced "insight") Software Inc. is offering a next-generation graphical user interface that uses hierarchical, brightly colored "tree" views to help users spot patterns and navigate Web sites or large file systems. These "wide widgets," as they're called, rely on the user's intuitive visual skills, says Ramana Rao, one of the company's founders. Instead of having to scroll through a list of thousands of files, scanning to find those of a particular type, the widget marks files that meet your search criteria with easily identifiable colors that stand out much like a brightly colored bird stands out against the green leaves of a tree. The widget is currently being used on The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and may end up being incorporated into a future operating system.