Comdex ’97

Each year, more than 200,000 people descend on Las Vegas with more on their minds than gambling and Wayne Newton. They’re there for Fall Comdex, the largest computer show in the world (a.k.a. “Nerdvana”).

This year’s Fall Comdex just wrapped up, and the one trend that stood out was the ongoing effort to change the way we interact with our silicon-brained friends.

Now, I type 100 words a minute, so I think the keyboard is a fine way to communicate with my computer. But those who hunt and peck method would much rather be able to just talk to their computer, a la Star Trek.

I’ve used a crude voice-recognition system on my own computer that allows me to say things like, “File, New,” to start a new file. But you have to spend a lot of time “training” the computer to recognize each word, and you have to speak very slowly and distinctly.

A product shown at Comdex, however, promises to make talking to your computer as easy as talking to your spouse–maybe easier. Dragon Systems’ NaturallySpeaking recognizes and creates general text from normal, continuous speech. Writing a letter? Just speak as you usually do, and NaturallySpeaking automatically transcribes it into your word processor, at 160 words a minute or higher (faster than almost anyone can type) with 95 percent or greater accuracy. NaturallySpeaking has a large built-in vocabulary which can be personalized; it even lets you spell out new words one letter at a time. You can also edit, format or correct words and phrases with verbal commands.

NaturallySpeaking learns dialects, accents and individual pronunciations quickly and automatically. In other words, it personalizes your computer–makes it more distinctly yours. That’s also the thrust of two other products shown at Comdex: Visionics’ FaceIt PC, winner of the Best of Comdex award from the magazine PC Week, and Digital Persona’s U.are.U.

FaceIt PC allows a computer connected to a video camera to automatically track and identify people’s faces. It grew out of basic scientific research over the last 10 years into how the human brain recognizes faces.

FaceIt uses its ability to recognize faces to control access to your computer. With FaceIt, you don’t need a password: if the face of the person seated at your keyboard isn’t yours, your computer won’t even boot up.

In tests, the program proved very hard to fool. Forgot your glasses? FaceIt still recognizes you. You can even grow a beard; FaceIt focuses on the top half of the face.

FaceIt has been licensed for use in airport and border security systems–and in a new generation of automated teller machines. Forget your PIN number? You won’t need it, when the ATM can tell who you are just by looking (of course, old-fashioned live tellers could do the same, once upon a time…).

U.are.U looks like an ordinary computer mouse propped up on one end, sporting a hole just the right size for sticking a finger into–which is exactly what you’re supposed to do. U.are.U recognizes your fingerprints, again obviating the need for a password. U.are.U, too, has potential applications anywhere access has to be restricted to certain individuals.

Even that ultimate symbol of computer games, the joystick, is changing. CyberStuff’s CyberStik is a joystick that isn’t attached to a base and isn’t wired to the computer. Instead, you hold it in mid-air and simply tilt your wrist forward, back, right and left.

Computers themselves, and their peripherals, continue to shrink. Mitsubishi’s Pedion notebook computer, for instance, is less than two centimetres thick; and bulky TV-like monitors are giving way to flat panels.

All of this only scratches the surface of what appeared at Comdex. There were companies demonstrating systems for making long-distance phone calls over the Internet, often at far lower cost (although admittedly at far lower quality, too) than regular long-distance. There was even a $5,000 U.S. TV-production system, Play’s Trinity 1.0, that could replace current people-intensive video production systems that can cost millions of dollars.

The pace of change in computer technology leaves most of us feeling rather breathless, especially if we spent $3,000 on a computer system that sells six months later for $1,200. If it all gets too much for you, I suggest you talk to someone…someone who knows you well, who hangs on every word you say, who exists only to do your bidding.

In other words, have a chat with your computer. If it’s not listening yet, it soon will be.

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