Friday, September 14, 2007

Impress Your Professor: "Tomorrow's Accommodating Computers" or "How Computers Will Conquer the World"

This week’s “Impress your Professor” takes inspiration from two articles appearing in recent editions of the Economist: “There’s life in the old dog yet” and more importantly “The trouble with computers.” They discuss changes occurring within the computer industry that will likely influence how libraries use technology to provide future services.

Both articles acknowledge that computer manufacturers owe their unprecedented earnings over the past 25 years to three factors:

1) Computers are increasingly powerful – they are capable of handling a greater number of complicated tasks simultaneously.
2) Computers are increasingly cheaper – the growing efficiency of manufacturers has made their products affordable to both rich and poor countries.
3) Computers are increasingly easier to use – as programs become more accessible, the productivity of individuals and organizations increases.

However, as the authors point out, the first two factors are beginning to matter less to consumers. It seems that people expect only so much functionality out of computers and that demand for computers (whether they’re laptops or cell phones) becomes less elastic once prices fall beyond a certain point. The best way for computer manufacturers to compete is to make their products more stylish and more user-friendly than those of their competition.

This change in emphasis is bringing a dramatic roundabout in computer design. Historically, programmers have attempted to include as much functionality in computers as possible and expected interface designers to invent the best means for using them. The trend is now the reverse; interface designers will increasingly expect programmers to accommodate them. Using computers should become easier than ever.

The second article describes some of the changes we should expect in coming years. First, be prepared to say good-bye to your mouse and keyboard. The most promising interface designs rely on “gesture-based” and “multi-touch” systems. “Gesture-based” systems allow people to operate computers using hand gestures detected by sensors (think of Tom Cruise in “Minority Report”). “Multi-touch” systems” also rely on physical gestures, but can sense more than one movement at a time. Such concepts are not so far-fetched. In fact, variations of them have already entered the market (e.g. Apple’s iPhone).

Second, expect computers to become better at anticipating and meeting our needs. The growing field of HCI (human-computer interaction), which focuses on improving interface designs is dedicating much energy to the development of “context aware” systems. The idea is for computers to interpret available information and use it to present users with the options most relevant to what they are doing at any particular moment. Imagine a computer automatically searching a library’s catalog to request a book that its user, a high school student, is expected to write a report on within a couple of weeks.

All of this presupposes a future in which computing devices that collect, interpret, and share information surround humans everywhere. Whether this world of “ubiquitous computing” is something we should fear or welcome depends on how one looks at it. It is clear however that librarians need to be aware of these changes and learn to adapt to them. The alternative to evolution is extinction.

To learn more about HCI join ASIS&T’s related special interest group. Also, consider attending ASIS&T’s annual conference in Milwaukee. On Tuesday, October 23rd researchers there will present their findings on a number of recent HCI studies.

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