CES session aims to cross computing’s final frontier

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In the three decades since personal computers first became ubiquitous, almost everything about them has advanced beyond recognition, but one key element of the technology has remained unchanged, and it dates back more than a century: the humble keyboard.

But all that is now set to change, according to the organizers of a session at CES this week, titled, “The Next Big Thing: Is Typing Dead?”

“In 10 years, devices that you interact with solely through a keyboard will be a rarity,” predicts Tim Stevens, editor-at-large for CNET, and session moderator. Alternative technologies include voice command software like Siri, gesture-recognition systems that move the interactive touchscreen into three dimensions, and gaze-based technologies that read the movements of the user’s eyes.

And it’s about time, too, Stevens believes. “The standard QWERTY keyboard hasn’t really changed since the typewriter,” an innovation that dates to the later decades of the 19th century, he notes.

Stevens believes a tipping point has been reached. “Once you make the move to mobile, [the keyboard] gets clumsy,” he said.

“Pick any trend within the [IT] industry and new interfaces are part of it … alternative means of interacting with everything from a [desktop] computer, to a smartphone or a wired, online car.”

The eclipse of the keyboard over the next decade will also be driven by “a lot of improvement in the technologies” that underlie the alternatives, Stevens said.

As an example, he cited voice command. Susan Bennett, whose recorded voice is used by the software behind Siri, the iPhone assistant, will be a “special guest” on the panel, along with Vlad Sejnoha, CTO of voice recognition biometrics firm Nuance; BMW Head of User Experience Marcus Behrendt; and academics Wendy Ju from Stanford University and Pattie Maes from MIT.

“Voice is not a new thing,” said Stevens, “But it’s always been slow and clunky, in part because it was dependent on the computing power of the device … The cloud is changing all that … it’s made things relatively easy that would have been impossible even a couple of years ago.”

“Voice is getting better and better,” Stevens concluded.

But voice command has its own limitations: Users might not be able to compete with ambient sound in a loud outdoor location like a train station; or they might not want to share their computer interactions with everyone else in a quiet office.

Gesture recognition and gaze control are other alternatives, and both fields where innovation is being driven not just in traditional areas like the gaming sector (think Oculus Rift’s Touch system), but also in emerging markets like the connected car. The latest series seven vehicle from luxury auto giant BMW, for example, uses a “gesture control system,” according to the company’s promotional material.

“It’s a whole new world,” Stevens said.

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