The key components in all forms of machinery are those that interact directly with the people operating them. Without these input devices, machines would not receive real-time instructions for processing data and programs. Modern devices respond to many actions from the body, including typing, speaking, foot taps and eye motion. Developments involving specialized software have opened many doors, narrowing the boundaries between machine and operator.
Input device innovations allow the handicapped to participate in society in a way that prior generations could not. The physicist Stephen Hawking is a famous example: His ability to "walk" and "speak" are both controlled by devices that translate small movements into mobility and communication. And as electronic communication pervades society, companies such as Nuance continue to develop applications to control all aspects of computing with the voice alone, allowing the immobile to actively participate in much of the modern world.
Demands for new forms of entertainment continually inspire major developments in input device technology. While computer games created the original need for joysticks, console systems consistently extend the possibilities of hardware-software interaction. Hundreds of U.S. patents for specialized input devices were born out of the gaming industry. These inventions translate a wide range of body motions into data adaptable for diverse applications. Mimicking golf swings, playing tennis, shooting rifles, bowling and much more is now possible in a virtual world.
In 2002, the first remote surgical procedure demonstrated a profound potential for input device technology. A surgeon operating in the U.S., using apparatus attached to sensors and high-speed fiber optics, successfully completed an operation on a patient in Europe. The implications were immediately apparent: Such devices not only streamline machine operation, but also eliminate distance as an obstacle to many tasks.
Remote input has also created new applications for unmanned planes in a variety of fields. Flying the aircraft from safe locations thousands of miles away, pilots can perform risky maneuvers without risking their own lives, and this has changed the face of modern warfare, meteorology and search-and-rescue operations. The drones may spy and attack enemy forces, or study violent storms up close, in ways previously thought too dangerous.
While input devices evolve with exciting new applications, so too is the form of input continually changing. The future of "experience design" focuses on thought processes alone to control machinery. Often a topic of science fiction, companies such as Pixel8 are making mind-controlled apparatus a reality. The ability to control cars, instruments and even robots, without any physical movements, is about to arrive.
- Photo Credit Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of David Fulmer
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