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Are tablets the perfect computer?

Andrew Robulack

Geek Life Andrew Robulack Friday March 30, 2012

The tablet has been adopted more quickly than any computing platform before. Have we reached the end game of computers, or is something even better on the way?

Laptop computers took 12 years to reach 50 million people. That same milestone was reached by smartphones in seven years. Tablets, which is to say the iPad, got there in just two.

Many analysts predict that by the end of next year, total tablet sales will completely eclipse traditional computers.

But does it mean that the tablet is the “perfect” computer? Or is it just another gadget stop on the never-ending geek highway?

Most likely the tablet is just the first step in an evolution to something better that embraces a broader range of our natural communication behaviours.

Microsoft’s Andrew Blake considers “multi-touch” - the way we interact with tablets - to be the third generation of computing, and part of a period that’s already ending.

Blake claims that we’re on the cusp of a new method of interacting with digital information that he calls “action at a distance.”

But he would say that. He’s in charge of Microsoft’s Kinect, that device you plug into your XBox 360 to play video games using just your body.

Some people predict that Kinect technology will be built into laptop computers when the new Windows 8 is released this fall.

That should be interesting because to get Kinect working even moderately well you have to stand about 10 feet away from the thing and flail your limbs around like a marionette hanging on the strings of a coked-up junkie puppeteer.

Another aspect of the Kinect’s “action at a distance” methodology, and many other devices these days, is voice.

So, rather than tapping and poking at your computer to make things happen, you just speak commands.

This functionality is nothing new, but Apple raised the bar on voice control last year when they made “Siri” the marquee feature of their latest iPhone.

Despite its age, voice remains probably the crudest way to interact with computers. There’s just so much at play with spoken language, from accents to background noise, that it’s sometimes surprising a device can recognize, much less understand, a human speaker at all.

I find that most people who use Siri end up yelling at their iPhone like it’s some peasant in a Bangkok street market. You know: “DO. YOU. SPEAK. ENGLISH?”

All the same, expect voice to become a more predominant method of computer interaction for better or worse.

So I’d disagree with Microsoft’s Blake when he says that we’ve entered a fourth period of computing.

Instead, I see gesture and voice naturally complementing multi-touch to form a trio of new ways to interact with computers in this third period that’s only just begun. (The first and second periods, in case you’re wondering, were the “green screen” of DOS’ command line, and the keyboard and mouse, respectively.)

Actually, I like to think of our current era as the Italian Period of computing.

Just imagine gesture, voice, and multi-touch working in combination: you’re on the street, shouting at your phone, waving your arms (and, presumably, your device) wildly in the air, then poking, prodding and caressing it for emphasis.

You’d fit right in on any street corner in Milan. If not for the fact, standing alone there, you’d look like a completely unfashionable raving lunatic.

And it’s that cultural aspect of the evolving computing paradigm that really has me wondering.

Are we ready to use our voice and bodies to control our computers?

Jumping around the living room to play Dance Central with friends is one thing. Waving your arms around in a cafe to open a file is something else completely.

And, sure, we talk to one another every day. But jiving with an inanimate object is still generally considered grounds for getting yourself committed.

Just the other day, in fact, I got several concerned glances from passersby on the street as I asked my iPhone to remind me when my parking meter expired.

Beyond culture, though, are these new methods of interaction really of any benefit to us?

In isolation, gesture, voice, and multi-touch, each offer only limited improvement to how we interact with technology.

It wouldn’t make any sense, for example, if Italians only waved their arms around without talking and touching, too.

We humans use gesture, voice, and touch as complementary parts of a comprehensive communication system.

That’s not the case with computers, which currently treat speech, gesture, and multi-touch as separate and exclusive forms of input.

You can’t say to an iPhone, “Tell me what she did on this day,” while pointing at someone beside you and tapping a day on the calendar.

And it’s infuriating when your XBox completely ignores a verbal instruction you make to supplement a gesture it misunderstood, like it’s plugged its ears with its fingers and started singing, “lalalalalala I can’t hear you!”

A human would easily understand any combination of these communication methods.

But a computer can only comprehend them in isolation.

The iPhone in my previous example might understand that you asked about events, and a person, and a date. But it would be unable to recognize that you’re expressing a relationship between these three different inputs.

That’s why I say we’re at an early stage in this third era of computing. Exciting new interactive capabilities are available to us. But, save for multi-touch, they are generally frustrating to use because they don’t work together yet.

So, no, tablets aren’t the final chapter in computing.

They’re more of a statement on how we yearn to use more of our natural communication capacity as humans to interact with technology.

So what’s next? Well, tablets were a natural form factor for multi-touch.

Now somebody has to come up with something else that provides an enjoyable, intuitive way to make multi-touch work with gesture and voice.

In a way that doesn’t make us all look like idiots, of course.

Andrew Robulack is a writer and consultant specializing in technology and the internet. Read his blog at http://www.geeklife.ca

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