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The future of HCI

Sunday, 7 January 2007 future hci rant zombies

The other day, Seopher had a post on how the internet is like the universe and in my comment I got caught up in just how much content there is rolling out and how we’re unequipped to consume it all.

If you haven’t done computer science at uni, you may well be unfamiliar with the term “HCI”. It stands for the Human Computer Interface and represents the way people utilise computers ranging from the hardware like mice, keyboards and monitors to the software like graphical user interfaces and command lines. The topic has more abbreviations and acronyms than any other technical subject, and for the mainstay, it’s very easy and common-sense based.

People often start talking about the future of HCI then back off. Predicting the future has never been science’s strong point and thank god for that! Otherwise I’d be wearing a rather uncomfortable tin-foil two-piece taking pills rather than eating meals and getting around on my space hopper.

I/O: The big delay

The problem with HCI as it is, is we’re limited to what our body can do. The fastest we can output (accurately) is through our fingers on something like a keyboard (for letters) and through a mouse for more fluid or spacial gestures. For generating these gestures, our brains need to imagine the physical representations and coordinate the body to manipulate the hardware accordingly.

For input, our eyes can process a lot of things but when we’re reading, we’re limited by our brains interpreting the shapes into letters and those shapes into words and then those words into sentences and those sentences into meaning.

What if we could skip that middle guff out? We’re wasting so much of our brains potential because we have to limit it to doing menial, repetitive things like typing and reading all these silly letters and trying to make sense from them.

I thought it about time for some of this (it’s Lawnmower Man if you’re too young):

Lawnmower Man!

Screw Touch! Thought-Typing is for me

The first step into this brave new world is getting computers to understand thoughts and science is making great process, being able to tell what colour you’re thinking of… after only a few days of calibration on a single person.

That is the main problem with the brain: because they evolve over time with learning, lots of different associations are in different locations so no two people thinking about the same thing will output the same “brain waves”.

When we have trained them up though, we should be able to use computers with a combination of natural/raw thought and adapted thought (like we need to use for standard graphical interfaces today, thinking our way around something so the computer understands what we mean).

IMAX∞ for all

But when we have computers that can read our thoughts (eek!) we can start the process in reverse getting computers being able to input data directly into our conciousness.

No more speakers. No more losing your headphones. Nobody cares if you have a bloody projector! I’ve got it all – any time – anywhere – all in my head.


From a true technophobe’s perspective, this must be an absolute nightmare of an idea. It is true that this technology could be used to neuter the human race, just as it could brainwash or lock us up and farm us for bio-electricity.

From the other perspective, the optimists, just imagine how much faster we could do things like share thoughts with other people. We could give up speech because we could deliver a true feeling. Blogging would probably not survive in the same format other than a pure diary (collections of memories of the day) and associated thoughts.

Learning in general would change so significantly and we’d probably move to a hive-mind situation. It’s both a scary and exciting prospect.

As I mentioned earlier, technophobes would hate this idea of a computer-linked hive mind. In league with conspiracy-theorists, I’m sure they’d try to convince the world that we’d be hurtling towards our end and in a sense they’re right. I believe our evolution relies on a hive mind – an infinite supercomputer made of anyone who wants to help. With that sort of power there’s nothing academic that couldn’t be remedied in moments and tested in minutes.

Pulling the argument back on track, away from the scientific benefit, we would all be able to consume media so much faster; so much easier… and I’d like to see them try and put DRM on it.

Of course the internet would be nothing like it is today. because, as I’ve said, why have writing when you can have thoughts? Why have video’s of things when you can see someone’s vision? Everything changes.

Implications for portable hardware

On another note, imagine how much smaller hardware could be. Take one modern laptop. What’s it made up from? Roughly 70% is the screen, keyboard and track pad which we could chuck out right away. Would we need the hard disk? The only thing I can see it needing is the processor (for interpreting thoughts into a manageable state) and networking.

There would never be a need for a non-portable device, would there? There’s no need for a desk-based setup with monitors and proper keyboards once you do away with all that garb.

Implications on society


We’d all become zombies in the end. With virtual interaction at this level, we’d have no use for them and that, may be our downfall unless, of course, we build robots to keep us alive outside of the Matrix and work to pay our broadband bills.

On that note, I’ve seen that I’ve hit my paragraph limit for the day and I’m also getting whoosy predicting out this far. See! This happens to all modern scientists who get too far from the science.