19 September, 2008

touchable tech

Okay so as I said, it has been a while. I won't bore you with the details of why I was unable to blog for such a long time, but many of them were technical in nature. Anyway, here we are again. I was so excited to blog today that I could barely choose which topics to cover. The iPhone 3G? The new iPod nano? The new Microsoft commercials with Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld? I just didn't know where to begin. Suddenly it occurred to me to begin to discuss what makes technology accessible. In my mind, what makes a good piece of technology is how easy it is to use given my physical limitations. So for me, there are two good user interface models. Touch, and speech. And today we're going to tackle touch.

You will remember no doubt my excitement over the announcement of the iPhone last year. The iPhone is the first cell phone where I can use EVERY SINGLE PART of the device INDEPENDENTLY! That's entirely due to the touchscreen. But what is it that makes the touchscreen a good user interface? Well, there are several factors to consider in answering this question. First of all by their very nature, touchscreens must be large enough to be touched comfortably by one or two fingers. Sometimes, touchscreens must be large enough to allow the user to utilize their entire hand in operating the device in question. So a large touchable display also tends to be easier to read than displays that are not meant to be touched. Now be careful, I did not say that these are always as readable as we would like, simply that because of the size of the display, they are often (not always) more readable in comparison to devices without touchscreens. The second thing that makes the touch user interface extremely useful is that it eliminates the need for small plastic buttons, which can often be difficult to push. So for example, although I cannot read my e-mail on my iPhone because of my vision problem, the display is large enough to allow me to scroll through the names in my directory and tap on the desired to make a call. That means I don't have to deal with small keypads. It means I can use my iPod without having to fiddle with tiny buttons I can't possibly push. It means that for the first time in my life I can use a cell phone to check the weather. I can even use it to enlarge a webpage to make it readable when I'm not near my computer. No, it's not as comfortable as my large 21 inch display, but it is possible to read. So while the iPhone may not be ideal for some people such as the blind or people with even more severe fine motor control problems than myself, for me it has solved a huge problem. And as I started using my phone more I began to think about what touchscreen technology could do in other aspects of my life.

Let's imagine for instance that I have a touchscreen on my PC. What could I do? Well, one of the problems I have now is that I find it extremely difficult to dial an ordinary telephone and that's why the iPhone is such a godsend. So how could that same concept be used on a PC? Well, if I had a large screen display that was touch enabled, I could actually go to yellow book.com, look up say pizza, and with a single tap on the screen, call my local pizza shop automatically. Furthermore, utilizing broadband, I could actually see the person I'm talking to and believe it or not, being able to see the person you're talking to helps eliminate many of the embarrassing difficulties I encounter with people not being able to understand me. But that's just one instance where touch technology comes in handy. There are many more. What about resizing webpages to make them more readable the same way we do on the iPhone? If you could do that, no longer will you have to search to find the right menu and command to enlarge text. We could help eliminate repetitive stress injuries caused by the mouse and keyboard. Here is a real world example of a PC from HP that utilizes touch technology.if you're interested, yes you can use the entire Windows Vista 64-bit system with its typical user interface entirely by touch. You're not just limited to the TouchSmart software suite of applications. For me, being able to touch the computer the way I touch my iPhone will provide easier access and that really is the point of touch. It simplifies things for me so that I am not bogged down by fine motor control problems. I only need to be able to use one or two fingers to access important information. I don't have the HP TouchSmart PC yet, but we are hoping to have one sometime in December. There is a reason for this. No I am not wealthy but I have some new technological developments in process to further my independence. More on that later. Just as touch has made it possible for me to use a cell phone for the first time in my life and the HP TouchSmart PC will make the computer more accessible, touch technology has also made it possible for me to take up a new hobby.

Many of you may not know that I enjoy painting using acrylics. But like any good artist, I always need new material to draw inspiration from. Photos are great for this. There was just one problem. As I have stated, I have fine motor control issues because of cerebral palsy and most digital cameras have very small buttons. So what to do? Well, once again the inspiration came from my iPhone. "If someone would just develop a good 12 megapixel camera that employed a touchscreen interface, I would be able to truly take photos independently. Kodak to the rescue!My new v1273 is entirely driven by an amazing touch user interface!This mean that I can hold the camera in one hand and set all my options with just one finger. Again, an example of such technology facilitating Independence. Keep in mind this is the first digital camera I have been able to use!the photo that I included in this blog post, is one of the first I took. Again, the touch UI is what is making all of this possible. There is bound to be more of that coming. Microsoft has publicly announced that the next version of Windows (code-named Windows 7) will utilize ubiquitous touch technology. For me, this is wonderful news because when you combine this technology with that of speech recognition, you get a much more accessible PC. By the way, Steve, where is the iMac with this functionality?

Now I know that there are many people like myself who are liberated by technology that allows us to interact with it simply by gesturing. The one big criticism that those who are not enthused by touch have is that, "I don't want to touch my computer screen with my fingers. It will get fingerprints on it." Really? This is your criticism? Touchscreens are glass, so they are easy to clean. Yes, you may have to do so quite often but I hope this blog entry will help you who are not excited by touchscreen technology to have a somewhat broader perspective on why this technology is important. Of course I recognize that touch technology is not the only way to go and for people with the inability to use their hands at all, it's simply impractical. But I don't know, there is going to come a day for everyone when using mouses is intolerable and keyboarding can no longer be done efficiently.no one technology is perfect and quite often I find it necessary to have a variety of solutions working in concert with each other to solve problems. Touch technology is a tremendously important tool in my daily life. Think of all the things I have discussed in this entry and consider the fact that I would not be able to do any of them if the innovators behind these products were afraid of a few fingerprints :-)

A lot to catch up on.

Hello to everyone. It is so nice to be back with you again! My apologies for being gone for so long but I was actually having great difficulty accessing the blog site. No, this was not because it was down. This was because my Dragon software did not correctly support Firefox. Consequently I had a great ordeal to undergo every time I wanted to post. But I am here now and I promise to post regularly. For a while, it may even be daily because there is so much stuff that I've had thoughts on in the tech world. So thank you so much for being patient! I hope you enjoy the entries to come.