Mon, 11 Sep 2000

Old is better with input devices

Basically, a computer involves data input, processing, storage and output. Unless you tell it to do something, the computer will just sit there humming, wasting power and generating heat.

How do you tell your PC or Mac to do something? You need an input device. The most basic input device is, of course, the keyboard. The keyboard has evolved a lot since the heyday of the large, heavy and clickety-clacking IBM originals, which a lot of computer users still prefer. Some of the latest keyboard models even have their keys wrapped in transparent plastic, making them smudge-proof and nicer to our fingers.

Then there is the mouse, the invention of pioneer Doug Englebart in 1965. At that time, Doug most probably did not realize how big the impact of his invention would be on computer users today. Later on, after the graphical user interface (GUI) became commonly used thanks to Steve Jobs, the genius behind the success of Apple Computer, no computer was complete without some sort of a pointing device -- as mice are also known. It may be a tackball, a TrackPoint (like the one we find on Toshiba and ThinkPad notebooks, for example), a touch pad or a pointing stick, but what it provides is an extension of our fingers into the computer program.

The leader among input device makers is Logitech, the company from Switzerland now headquartered in Freemont, California. Logitech recognizes the contribution of Doug Englebart, and lets him have an office in one of their buildings. Logitech makes mice, game controllers, keyboards, PC video cameras and multimedia speakers. Logitech claims that this year they will make their 200 millionth mouse. There are other mouse makers that you must be familiar with, including Alps, Genius and Kensington.

Those who play games on their computers have long been familiar with the joystick, which resembles the yoke in airplanes. More expensive and complete than the joysticks are the input devices that simulate the steering wheel, dashboard, gear stick and pedals of a race car. These game pads turn the computer into a complete video game console. Equipped with the right software and hardware, the computer can even give feedback to these devices to make the experience even more real. This capability is called force feedback.

Scanners are also input devices, as they input the digital data of the images being scanned. Scanners can scan documents, graphics, photos, barcodes and even business cards. The PC video camera is another input device, as well as the digital cameras that can be connected directly to the computers.

Those who want to draw pictures or teach their children to draw pictures can use drawing tablets with special pens. In the past, monitors that accept input directly were thought to be a breakthrough. The touch-sensitive screens are still in use today in personal digital assistants (PDAs), so that you can scribble your notes using a special shorthand system and a stylus. Another area where touch-sensitive screens are the right solution is in information kiosks, such as the ones you'd find along Singapore's Orchard Road. Interestingly, however, Fujitsu's notebooks still incorporate touch-sensitive screens, although many doubt the real benefit of this feature on a notebook.

EyeTech Digital Systems, Inc. has developed an interesting combination of hardware and software for controlling the movements of a pointer called Quick Glance. A camera mounted on the monitor keeps track of the gaze of the user, and the pointer on the screen will move following his gaze. Combined with an on- screen keyboard called Wivik, this is a great solution for those who cannot use their hands to input anything into the computer.

As computers get smarter and more powerful, they will accept a wider variety of input types. Audio input is one of them. Not only can you only record your voice or music from a compact disc, but you can also give voice instructions to the machine. You can say, for instance, "File, New", and the computer will create a new file for you. Then you can go ahead and dictate memos. However, for the next few years, until voice recognition software really enables computers to talk without requiring prior training for individual users, the keyboard will remain an indispensable and natural part of the computer. (Zatni Arbi)

Upcoming topics for IT Superhighway: Technology

handsets II -- Sept. 18 Computer

courses -- Sept. 25 Home theater -- Oct. 02 Large format

printers -- Oct. 09