At the cutting edge

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Smaller, smarter, faster and easier to use. That's the aim of much of the ICT research as companies pour millions of pounds into making computers even better than they are today. A lot of work is aimed at improving the interface between the computer and the user. Most of us use a mouse or keyboard to operate a computer, but a lot of research is concerned with improving speech recognition technology. Today, you can buy off-the-shelf speech recognition packages from companies such as IBM, Dragon Systems and Lernout and Hauspie, which work remarkably well, especially when you consider how a computer must not only recognise words, but "understand" them too. Future versions will become more accurate and easier to train.

Lernout and Hauspie believe that speech recognition technology will play a major role on the Internet. The company points out that soon, non-English speaking Net users will outnumber those who speak English as their native language. Lernout and Hauspie is developing software that not only recognises speech, but can translate it as well. As more and more people use the Internet for telephony, and as a growing number of websites offer speech as well as text and pictures, this type of software could become indispensable.

Imagine walking up to your computer in the morning and it not only recognises you, but can judge your mood by your facial expression? Microsoft Research is working on computer vision recognition systems which use a video camera and smart software. These systems could not only be used for security (your computer would refuse to give access to anyone it didn't recognise), but they could also be used to control a computer, for example, a wink could close or open a file. This isn't a gimmick, as people with physical disabilities could find it easier to use their PC. Computers that can lip-read are under development, and their accuracy is claimed to be around 90 per cent, although this falls off to 60 per cent in a noisy room (like some classrooms!). Microsoft is also developing 3-D panoramic worlds which users can "explore" on their PC. There are already systems that give computer users 3-D panoramic views, such as Apple's QuickTime VR, but all the scenes are viewed from a fixed point. Microsoft's system allows users to "wander" around a room and would be superb for virtual museums and galleries. At this year's BETT 2000, companies such as Apple, RM and Compaq, were demonstrating wireless technology. A stanard developed by Ericsson, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba known as Bluetooth could become ubiquitous on many computers over the next few years.

Bluetooth uses tiny microchips with built-in radio transmitters. A portable computer could send or or receive files between itself and a desktop computer without either device being connected. A digital camera could use Bluetooth technology to transfer images to a desktop PC without using fiddly connecting wires. However, although wireless technology will become commonplace in a few years time, it will not eliminate wired systems and research is taking place to improve this.

Most new computers now offer Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology. This makes it much easier to connect computer peripherals such as scanners, printers and digital cameras to a computer. However, USB's data speed is relatively slow and not good for transferring video files. But Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Intel and Philips are developing a new USB standard that will be 40 times faster than today's system.

It's hard to believe that early computers used floppy disks for storing data or that a 40-megabyte hard disk was once considered large. Today computers use hard disks measured in gigabytes (roughly 1,000 megabytes), but larger hard drives offering terabyte (1,000-gigabyte) capacities will become widely available in the next five years or so. And not only will computers become smaller, but they will literally be at our side most of the time. Organisations such as Philips and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed wearable computers that can be built into the clothes or shoes.

Finding your way around the Internet will also soon become easier. Today's search engines, which are used to find specific information on the Internet, are not very smart, even those which use natural language. Yet a new generation of search engines will be able to separate the digital chaff from the wheat. NEC has even developed a search engine for finding digital images, photographs and video scenes on the Internet. Using a new technology called MPEG-7, it will be possible to "mark" images with ID tags and instruct search engines to find them. For instance, you may be looking for pictures of the space shuttle. By simply typing the words, a search engine could find the locations of all the images. Using computer technology in the future will not only be simpler, but it looks like being more fun.

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