Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Taking Baby Steps into the Future


We've all seen (or heard of) Tom Cruise in Minority Report navigating through a virtual desktop by simply waving his hands in front of his face. He resembles a conductor of an orchestra - a fact that director Steven Spielberg mercilessly drives home by setting the scene against the strains of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony - one who manipulates information rather than music. Not only does this method of computing have a more majestic look than your normal keyboard/mouse/monitor system, it also looks like it's just infinitely more comfortable and natural.

Working on my laptop all day has certainly caused me to fantasize about society in 2054, the moral implications of pre-crime aside. No more sore wrists and fingers from using the trackpad. No more bleary and bloodshot eyes from staring at a 13" screen sitting a foot and a half in front of your face. No more unsightly dirt and grime buildup on your once-pristine pearly-white Apple keyboard. Sure, a laptop has the benefit of portability, but continued use reveals it as a rather uncomfortable and demoralizing workspace.

Now, I know Philip-K.-Dick-esque virtual reality is nowhere near actual reality. But, as I've always said when dealing with the development of technology, you've got to take baby-steps. And judging by some new and recent developments, we're currently on the path (though, admittedly, not too far along on the path) toward seeing something that somewhat resembles what Spielberg/Dick envisioned for Tom Cruise/John Anderton. Based on the available (or mostly available) technology, here's what I envision as my ideal computerical environment.

MONITOR: Call the folks at CNN!

Last November we saw unprecedented visual analysis of election demographics through CNN's use of their now-signature Smartboard (TM). It was an absolute joy to watch newsroom reporters interact directly with a high-end-television-sized screen simply by touching it. The staff seemed overwhelmed at first, and the new hardware sometimes appeared a little buggy, but as the technology improves and the reporters and analysts get more experience, the sky's the limit for what the Smartboard can accomplish.

An Example: We start with a map of the United States, each state colored a different shade of red or blue, depending on its liberal or conservative leanings. Touch one of the states, and we automatically zoom in, the selected territory occupying the entire screen. Now we see the particular state divided into counties, each one of those individually shaded. You can zoom in or out with the same interface as an iPhone (by squeezing your hands together or spreading them apart, respectively), you can draw directly on the screen, or you can "right-click" on any item to have the 'board display more information... all without picking up another device or pushing a single button.

The Smartboard is great because it lets you interact directly with the information you're looking at. Under the current system, you have to bring your hand in contact with an object on your desk, move that object, which moves a digital representation of where you want to be on the screen, then manipulate that object to interact with the screen. If you try to touch your computer monitor like a Smartboard, you'll only end up with annoying and obscuring smudges on your screen. Any time you can remove an intermediary from your information-interactive process, you're left with a faster, more satisfying, and more organic experience.

KEYBOARD: Why not put a desktop... on your desk top?

Of all the innovations shepherded in by Apple's iPad, the keyboard-as-a-movable-part-of-the-desktop is perhaps the most intriguing for me. Granted, I haven't actually seen or touched one in reality, and I'm sure it doesn't compare speed-wise or accuracy-wise with the old-fashioned clickety keyboards. But, again, baby steps. I'm sure it's a lot less frustrating to use than trying to type full documents text-message style like on the smaller iPod. And from here on out, the technology will only get more streamlined and easier to use.

Imagine if you had, in place of a keyboard, a large iPad style screen that essentially acted as a second desktop... on top of your real desk's top. You could still type on it, but the keyboard would function as an application that you could move around, resize, or even minimize to make room for other applications. If you had a stylus, you could even write on your computer desktop as if you were writing on your actual desktop! Having your keyboard behave as a miniature computer of sorts increases the level of interface you can have with your device, making computing that much more efficient.

But can you take it with you?

This setup would surely be a lot of fun, but it doesn't seem like it would travel very well. Sure, there are ways to make it more portable: think two iPad's connected longways with a hinge so you could set it on a table like a laptop or hold it like a book (just think how this could be used to sell its e-reader functionality). But then you lose the benefits of an all-immersive technological environment.

But I think it's almost better this way. The necessity of setting up a full-time workstation to reap the greatest possible benefits from modern technology might be the only thing keeping the human race even remotely connected to reality. If we could take our Internet and our applications with us wherever we go, we would have to make a conscious effort to interact with the outside world.

I'm sure the time will come when even this hurdle will be overcome, and every aspect of our lives will be inundated with electronic feedback. Until then, let's just sit back and try to enjoy watching the baby that is virtual reality slowly learn how to walk...