University of Delaware researchers have developed a revolutionary computer interface technology that promises to put the bite on the traditional mouse and mechanical keyboard.
"This is not just a little step in improving the mouse, this is the first step in a new way of communicating with the computer through gestures and the movements of your hands. This is, after all, one of the ways humans interact." John Elias, UD professor of electrical and computer engineering, said.
Elias and Wayne Westerman, UD visiting assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, have been working on the new interface for about five years and are now marketing their iGesture product through a company called FingerWorks.
The project started as a doctoral thesis by Westerman, who was then a UD graduate student working with Elias.
The FingerWorks name fits because the technology uses a touch pad and a range of finger motions to communicate commands and keys to the computer. To open a file, you rotate your hand as if opening a jar; to zoom or de-zoom, you expand or contract your hand.
Elias said the communication power of their system is "thousands of times greater" than that of a mouse, which uses just a single moving point as the main input. Using this new technology, two human hands provide 10 points of contact, with a wide range of motion for each, thus providing thousands of different patterns, each of which can mean something different to the computer.
While much about the computer has changed over the last three decades–greater power, faster speeds, more memory–what has not changed is the user interface.
"For what it was invented for, the mouse does a good job," Elias said. "People accept the mouse and the mechanical keyboard because that's the way it is. But there are limitations in terms of information flow. There is so much power in the computer, and so much power in the human, but the present situation results in a communications bottleneck between the two."
Elias and Westerman have a better idea. "I believe we are on the verge of changing the way people interact with computers," Elias said. "Imagine trying to communicate with another human being using just a mouse and a keyboard. It works, but it is slow and tedious."
Elias said he could envision in the next 10 years "a very complex gestural language between man and machine."
The system is a multi-touch, zero force technology, Elias said, meaning the gestures and movements use all the fingers in a light and subtle manner.
Because of that, the system has a second major advantage over the mouse and mechanical keyboard because it can greatly reduce stress injuries such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome attributed to traditional computer work.
The company markets both stand-alone touch pads and touch pads built into nonmechanical keyboards. In the keyboards, the keys overlap the touch pad so the operator does not have to move his hands when switching between typing and using the mouse. Rather, everything can be done in a smoother flow of hand motions.
Elias explained the touch pad acts like a video camera, recording the objects touching its surface. An embedded microprocessor then applies an algorithmic process to convert those touches into commands understood by the computer.
"To observers watching somebody use multi-touch, it looks a little like magic," Elias said, illustrating his point on a computer in Evans Hall. "People see lots of things happening on the computer screen but very little hand motion is observed."
He said the system has been designed so the gestures used make sense for the operation being performed. For instance, you cut text with a pinch and paste it with a flick.
Eventually, he said, the computer password could be a gesture known only to the user.
Elias said people often think that speech recognition systems will become the ultimate user interface. "Voice commands are good for many things but terrible for other things," Elias said, adding he believes there are inherent problems with a speech-only interface.
"If you want to test this claim, you can do so with a perfect speech recognition system–another human being," Elias said. "Put somebody in front of your computer and try to do your work by issuing voice commands to him. You'll quickly find that many common tasks are difficult to do using speech, even though your 'computer interface' understands you perfectly."
Using hand and finger motion to input commands is, for many tasks, much more effective than trying to explain what you want to do in words, he said.
The system is being used at several work stations in Evans Hall and the reaction is largely favorable. It is something of a challenge for some workers, Elias said, because it is like learning a new language.
Susan Foster, UD vice president of information technologies, said she is impressed with the interface and plans to adopt it for use at several computer sites around campus.
"The device is the result of new thinking about the 'bandwidth' that constrains the physical interaction between operator and computer," Foster said. "It capitalizes on human gestures, which are easy to understand and execute. Once learned, like other motor skills, they are readily retained. The assistive qualities of the device also make it quite useful for those with limitations on upper extremity use."
The plug-and-play device, which requires no special software, should be of particular interest to programmers, graphic designers and editors, Foster said, and she is recommending they consider making use of a new technology that was "born and bred at UD and under continuing development here."
The University of Delaware is an equity partner in FingerWorks.
For more on FingerWorks, see the web site at http://www.fingerworks.com.
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