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Gservo
30th October 2002, 01:24 AM
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Although computers have changed tremendously over the past few decades, the user interface has barely been altered at all. Despite the growing incidence of RSI-related injuries among computer workers, the alternatives to the traditional keyboard and mouse remain rather limited. As a possible solution, researchers at the University of Delaware have created a new interface that they claim is not only ergonomically superior, but also vastly more powerful.

John Elias, UD professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Wayne Westerman, a visiting assistant professor at the department, have been working on the new design for almost five years now. "We have developed a technology that goes well beyond the mouse and mechanical keyboard," claims Elias.

The project began as a doctoral thesis by Westerman, then a UD graduate student under the supervision of Elias. But as it developed the pair realized that the technology could have far-reaching applications. So much so that they recently began marketing their product (called iGesture) through the Delaware-based company FingerWorks.

They believe that the communication power of their system is "thousands of times greater" than that of a mouse.

A Simple Touch

In contrast to a mouse, which uses just one moving point as its main input, the new technology uses a touch pad and a range of finger motions with which to communicate commands to the computer. The system permits ten points of contact via a user's fingertips, each with a wide range of motion. This way, thousands of different patterns are possible, each of which can mean something entirely different to the computer.

For example, rotating the hand as if opening a jar acts to open a file. In order to zoom in or out, users contract or expand their hands. The researchers designed the system so that the gestures made sense for the operation being performed. Text is cut with a pinch and pasted back in with a flick.

"For what it was invented for, the mouse does a good job," Elias says. "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."

"I believe we are on the verge of changing the way people interact with computers," said Elias. "Imagine trying to communicate with another human being using just a mouse and a keyboard. It works, but it is slow and tedious." He further added that he could envision "a very complex gestural language between man and machine" developing within as little as ten years.
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Pain Relief

Elias also asserts that the interface could go a long way toward reducing the RSI-injuries that are becoming an increasingly common occupational hazard for computer workers.

The system is a multi-touch, zero force technology, he said, meaning that the gestures and movements use all the fingers in a light and subtle manner.

The company markets both stand-alone touch pads and those built into keyboards. In the latter, the keys overlap the touch pad so the operator does not have to move his or her hands when switching between typing and using the mouse. Thus, everything can be done using a smoother flow of hand motions.

The touch pad acts like a video camera, recording the objects that brush its surface. An embedded microprocessor then applies an algorithmic process to convert those touches into commands that can be understood by the computer.

"To observers watching somebody use multi-touch, it looks a little like magic," said Elias. "People see lots of things happening on the computer screen but very little hand motion is observed."

"The device is the result of new thinking about the 'bandwidth' that constrains the physical interaction between operator and computer," says Susan Foster, UD vice president of information technologies. "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."

Says Elias, "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."