Hands-On Future Input Devices

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Type, scroll, swipe, speak & more

The input device is the middleman standing between you and your computer, but unlike most middlemen, you want the input device there; your computer is not capable of responding to you without the help of one or more input devices. Any device that takes the user’s physical actions and translates them into a command the computer can understand can be classified as an input device.

The two primary input devices we commonly associate with PCs are mice and keyboards. The former lets you move a pointer across the screen, navigate your computer’s file system, and launch and execute software. The latter translates your keystrokes into text and shortcut commands that let you perform a variety of functions and shortcuts.

Input miscellanea

Microsoft’s Touch Mouse combines two input methods in one

Microsoft’s Touch Mouse combines two input methods in one

Of course, mice and keyboards are not the only common input devices. Others you may find useful include a microphone, scanner, digital camera, webcam, and (especially in the case of notebooks) a trackpad. There are a slew of more specialized input devices out there as well, including game controllers, graphics tablets, motion-sensing devices, MIDI keyboards, and countless more.

Some input devices are industry-specific. For instance, medical imaging input devices can include computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, and medical ultrasonography, all of which are designed to let physicians look beneath the skin to diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses.

The mobile pursuit

The Treo 180 was one of the first pocket-sized devices to feature a full keyboard

The Treo 180 was one of the first pocket-sized devices to feature a full keyboard

Traditional input devices that worked well on PCs turned out not to work so well in mobile devices. Early mobile phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) were equipped with a handful of directional buttons and Confirmation and Escape keys that let users navigate menus to perform basic functions. Many mobile phones also used a numeric Dialpad that could double as directional keys and, in some contexts, as an alphanumeric keyboard. As these devices became more capable, menus bloated and it became laborious to navigate them with simple directional buttons.

Voice control became an essential part of the mobile experience, thanks to its ability to let us perform functions without touching buttons or looking at the screen. The hands-free movement, in particular, owes its success to voice-based input. Some states have passed laws that prohibit in-vehicle mobile phone use unless the driver is using a hands-free setup.

Voice recognition makes mobile phones safer to use when driving

Voice recognition makes mobile phones safer to use when driving

With the advent of Web connectivity on these mobile devices, mouse and keyboard analogues such as a stylus on a resistive touchscreen and built-in or virtual QWERTY keyboards became popular input technologies. The RIM (Research In Motion) BlackBerry may not have pioneered the full QWERTY keyboard on mobile devices (Handspring and Palm have that honor), but the business-centric smartphone definitely had a hand in popularizing them among mobile Web early adopters. Some BlackBerry models featured a trackball that let users scroll around the screen in any direction, giving the device a leg up on others available at the time for mobile Web browsing. The physical trackball on BlackBerrys was later replaced with a small touch-sensitive square below the screen that functioned in much the same way.

Today’s tablets and smartphones have their primary input devices, the touchscreen, integrated into the display. Cameras and microphones are input devices that are particularly well-suited to mobile devices. Apple’s iOS-based devices have had a hand in pushing the boundaries of mobile input technologies, most recently with Siri, a voice-activated “personal assistant.” To use Siri, users simply tap on the icon and begin speaking to search the Web, get directions, make phone calls, and more.

The future of input

For the first time, the mouse and keyboard’s place as the primary input devices on PCs is being challenged. Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8, is designed to work well on touchscreens and supports a full-range of gestures for navigating, launching software, and performing other functions.

Windows 8 was designed to be used in both touch- and keyboard/mouse-based environments

Windows 8 was designed to be used in both touch- and keyboard/mouse-based environments

Using our voices to control software and interact with our devices is nothing new, but it has the potential to further marginalize the mouse and keyboard. Building on voice input, Microsoft’s Kinect technology uses a combination of a microphone, video camera, infrared light emitter, and infrared sensor to detect the user’s voice commands and motions. Kinect has found uses in Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming console for voice- and motion-controlled games, gesture-based navigation of streaming video services, and more. Kinect For Windows has also been used to pioneer voice command- and motion-based input for a variety of applications.

Because moving our bodies and speaking is so fundamental to our nature, children quickly pick up the ins and outs of using voice and motions to play games and navigate software and interactive environments. For example, Alex’s Place, a Miami, Florida-based children’s cancer and blood disorder treatment center, uses Kinect For Windows to help children relax and have fun before and after exams. A handful of clothing retailers are currently testing motion-sensing technology to let customers virtually “try on” clothes. Car makers are using Kinect to let potential buyers virtually “test drive” new cars. Kinect’s virtual eyes and ears have also been shown to aid the physically and mentally disabled, helping the wheelchair-bound more easily navigate crowded places, dyslexic children learn the alphabet, and stroke victims relearn fine motor skills.

A better middleman

PC input devices tend to be taken for granted; you’ll never see a keyboard make the top ten holiday gifts list. But as the primary physical interface between you and your PC, you should carefully consider the available options before you buy. Comfort, style, ergonomics, and color all vary widely, and what works well for you may not work well for your coworkers or your employees. Don’t know where to begin your input investigation? Start with us. In the following pages, we’ll explore mice, keyboards, trackpads, and touch-based input devices to help you determine which ones best suit you.

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