Traditional computer input peripherals are now being challenged by the arrival of new types of technological man-machine interface. Is this trend threatening to really shake up the computer industry or does it just signal a shift in emphasis?

[Survey] Future Computers without Interfaces as We Know Them?

Driving a remote-controlled vehicle using just your thoughts – is this a science fiction scenario or can it be true? This kind of science fiction has now become fact, according to Australian electronics startup Emotiv, which is developing brain-computer interfaces based on electroencephalography (EEG) technology. Like the Myo armband, which enables you to use the electrical activity in your muscles to wirelessly control your computer, phone and other favourite digital devices, most recent development in the accessories field has been aimed at re-defining man-machine interaction. Typing on a computer keyboard and steering the cursor of the mouse on your screen are the kind of gestures that have gradually become part of our everyday lives, but these habits could become obsolete when the new interface technologies catch on. In widespread use since 2010, Microsoft’s Kinect technology, which boasted 8 million units sold two months after it went on sale, and California company Leap Motion with its computer hardware sensor device that supports input from hand and finger motions, analogous to a mouse, but requiring no hand contact or touching whatsoever, are already available as alternatives to the screen/mouse/keyboard trio. New alternatives to the mouse are now already well beyond the research stage, such as ‘3D Touch’ developed by researchers at the University of Wyoming, which works with movement sensors that you place on your fingers to give a lifelike touch sensation without needing any physical object to click on. The ‘keyboardless keyboard’ from Austin, Texas startup AirType has been designed to free users from the need to use keyboard hardware. The technology is embedded in a pair of bracelets which you wear on your hands. As you type on an imaginary keyboard, the bracelets capture and interpret the ‘typing’ movements as if you were using a real keyboard. In fact it looks as though gradual replacement of interface hardware by touch interfaces or gesture-based inputs may well represent the future of computer input technology. It remains to be seen however whether users are ready to swap their old habits for new ones.

Consequences for the IT industry?

Originally popularised by Swiss manufacturer Logitech back in the 1980s, the combination of keyboard and computer mouse has now seen falling sales in Europe and in the United States since the early 2010s. In a world where touchscreens dominate, both for tablets and computer touchpads, the role of the mouse is now being seriously called into question. In emerging countries which have not taken the historical mouse/keyboard route, touchscreen technologies are now even more dominant. Accordingly, Logitech has had a rough ride, seeing its share price falling by half between 2010 and 2013. In order to make up for the apparent falling-off of its core business, the Swiss hardware maker has diversified into the manufacture of connected peripherals, from Bluetooth speakers to iPad keyboards. (When contacted, Logitech declined to comment).

In similar vein, Japan-based Fujitsu, which specialises in B2B IT services, has also been adjusting to the advent of tactile technology. Boris Bachkine, the company’s Business Developer for End-User Computing, predicts that no one peripheral device is more likely to disappear than another. Touchscreen technology provides functionality additional to the keyboard, i.e. we should think of this trend as complementary rather than competing interface and peripheral usage, he argues. In the business world interfaces are continually being re-positioned towards niches where they perform best, with the basic aim of making productivity gains. Boris Bachkine reveals that: “at Fujitsu we’re seeing not so much a drop in production of keyboards, but rather a transfer of expenditure from traditional peripherals to more functionality-rich touchscreen technology.”

Basically keyboards still dominate in-company use where the objective is to optimise note-taking, using the mouse when more precision with the cursor is required. Competition in the peripherals market is highly specific, with complementarity between peripherals a more realistic approach than straight substitution. R&D departments in technology companies such as Fujitsu have been working for a long time on touchscreen technology, without however making it the standard for all peripheral devices. From the stylus to the ‘electronic glove’, R&D departments at market leading companies are launching themselves into projects geared to emerging uses – for graphic designers  and video games – rather than to a comprehensive takeover of the traditional mouse/keyboard space. Some functionality is certainly undergoing considerable change, but this relates to only a minor part of the user’s experience at work. One example is that passwords are being replaced by ‘contactless logon’ using visual recognition to streamline the authentication procedure.

AirType Concept Promo from pfista on Vimeo.

Horses for courses

In the business world, every company needs to select the interface which will optimise the performance of a given task. Nicolas Nova, a sociologist who founded the Near Future Laboratory, points out that “at airports, staff generally use computers without the mouse, and with operating systems dating from the 80s, which still work perfectly well for the job in hand.” At the other end of the scale, graphic designer studios are packed with interfaces – from graphic tablets to styluses – that are best suited to their work. The IT industry is increasingly moving towards a variety of rival interfaces designed for specific uses, ranging from the old-fashioned traditional keyboard to Google Glass for surgical operations. When first launched, the mouse was not intended to replace the keyboard but rather to complement it, in the same way that voice commands have been used for certain types of jobs for the last ten years. In fact the range of available interfaces is expanding, without one necessarily replacing another.

Meanwhile the adoption of new technologies is happening faster in people’s everyday lives than in the workplace, where the learning curve for new interfaces is rather slow and is jostling with other budget and policy imperatives. In the field of video games – a major market for peripheral vendors such as Logitech and Fujitsu – keyboards and mice, which used to be indispensable, have now been largely replaced by games consoles and their specific peripherals. Nevertheless, Boris Bachkine puts the situation in context: “Gamers who use mice and keyboards target their gaming very precisely and tend not to interact on the same servers as gamers who use consoles.” The consoles still need hand controls, although movement sensors such as those used by Microsoft’s Kinect have become very popular.

How will these new technologies shape our everyday lives?

Meanwhile Nicolas Nova, who is a keen observer of the relationships that people forge with technology, remains cautious and refuses to make any predictions for the success of one type of interface over another. He points out that back in the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) era, one manufacturer offered a keyboard which could be projected on to any surface and capture a person’s finger movements using a micro-camera, but there had been no takers for the concept. “Inertia in people’s habits is very strong and it takes quite some time for a person who is not used to the technology to shift from using a mouse to using a touchpad, or from an AZERTY keyboard to a different format,” stresses Nova. The same thing will probably happen to the innovations mentioned above, from the 3D pointer to movement sensors. Overcoming inertia is all about biological acclimatisation, getting the fingers used to the interface, plus also social acclimatisation. “Remember the time when portable phones first came out, and everyone started to hunch over those little screens?” asks Nicolas Nova.

However, engineers who design interfaces are not always aware of the emotions which a person might feel for the devices s/he uses. The book Curious Rituals, published by the Near Future Laboratory, discusses the acts – “violent ripostes” – which people commit against their electronic devices when they fail to work properly.  Nicolas Nova underlines that with the development of new interfaces that conceal the technology, e.g. movement sensors hidden in automatic doors, any anger aimed at the interface now has to find a different focus. “People will always direct their anger at technology which doesn’t work the way people want it to. Already interfaces which are hard to identify, such as movement sensors, make it difficult to get angry with a specific object, but how would we react when faced with the failure of a component that was embedded in our own body?” This is certainly something that should be thought about now that interfaces are emerging – such as electronic chips and tattoos – that are designed to be applied on or inside our bodies.

Looking at the longer term, Nicolas Nova highlights the inevitable physiological consequences which go hand in hand with the wider adoption of new technologies: “From a physiological point of view, sitting for long hours in front of your computer or constantly cocking your head to one side to look at your phone is not very good.” So the simple need for variety will probably bring about the advent of new forms of interface designed to entice users who may be growing tired of the keyboard/mouse duo and the repetitive gestures they require. However, the disappearance of peripheral hardware is not yet on the cards. We are probably looking at a future where new technologies complement the existing ones, without necessarily causing the demise of one or its replacement by another.

Curious Rituals: A Digital Tomorrow from Near Future Laboratory on Vimeo.

Written by Simon GUIGUE and Eliane HONG.