Thursday, February 02, 2006

Appliances Get Smarter

Anticipating the evolution of computing

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, June 3, 1998 -- Regardless of whether [Image]
the Internet keeps finding its way onto TVs or
video displays onto computers, the world is spending
loads of time in front of display screens.

The flickering TV has always had a mysterious allure,
hypnotically stealing the attention of anyone entering
the room where it's turned on. Some researchers, such as
Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in
Culture and Technology, say that our response is a
physiological reaction, an almost involuntary defense
mechanism for staying alert to changes in our
environment. [Thank heaven. I always thought it was just
because I'm an idiot. -- Ed.]

Now, at the crossroads of emerging and converging
technologies, product designers have a chance to respond
to new behaviors with regard to how we use
information/entertainment displays. It's questionable
that interactive technology demanding input from the user
can have the same allure as technology where we're simply
passive viewers. On the other hand, children being
brought up today will certainly process information
differently, being more likely to scan information by
grasping the whole image at once rather then reading it
piece by piece. They'll grow up more accustomed to
interactivity and thus, perhaps, more drawn to it.

Already, the idea of the PC as one all-encompassing
information device is being challenged, and one hopes its
outgrowth will go beyond the TV screen. I agree with
experts like Donald Norman, cognitive scientist
(currently working for HP) and author of the book "The
Design of Everyday Things." He's reported in this month's
"Wired" as foreseeing a future of "information
appliances" -- in other words, not one all-purpose
device, but separate task-specific objects, such as a
writing tablet, a time/weather clock, and smart phones
adept at delivering traffic updates. The Philips
Corporation's "Vision of the Future" project predicts a
similar destiny where a virtual doctor helps diagnose
your kid's sore throat and a virtual chef helps out in
the kitchen.

These scenarios seem to be the most humane ways to
integrate computing functions into everyday life. This
way, people aren't slaves to the computer -- they're not
forced to learn procedures to perform tasks. Instead, the
technology can be embedded in familiar objects so that
the tools we have are enhanced, and the technology is so
intuitive it's "invisible."

So maybe our TVs with their mind-numbing allure can
remain as entertaining they are now, without having to
act as computers. It's our computers that need to start
branching out to put brains into other objects.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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