Innovation is our regular column that highlights emerging technological ideas and where they may lead.
If you want to know how people will interact with machines in the future, head for a hospital.
That's the impression I got from a new report about the future of human-computer interaction from IT analysts Gartner, based in Stamford, Connecticut.
Gartner's now-classic chart, shown right, shows the rollercoaster of expectations ridden by new technologies: rocketing from obscurity to a peak of overblown hype, then falling into a "trough of disillusionment" before finally becoming mainstream as a tech's true worth is found.
Speech recognition, currently climbing the slope of enlightenment towards the plateau of productivity, is a good example of how healthcare helps new technology.
Some homeworkers are now hooked, and the technology is appearing in cellphones and voicemail systems. But its maturity owes as much to the rehabilitation industry as the software industry.
Today's true power users of voice recognition are people who are physically unable to use keyboard or mouse. For them, it is as much a medical device as an office aide. They have not only supported public and private research over the years, but also provided a market for the technology when it was far from perfect.
Guided by eyes
Eye tracking, climbing the hype peak as you read this, is also an everyday reality for many people for whom conventional interfaces are difficult.
Without that spur to innovation it is unlikely that more mainstream uses for eye tracking, from making computer games spring baddies when you least expect it to having billboards track passers by, would be so advanced.
Slumped at the bottom of the trough of disillusionment, virtual reality seems too familiar an idea to be labelled "emerging". But it, too, is relatively well established in the clinic, where the high installation costs can be justified.
Psychologists have long used it to recreate scary scenarios while treating phobias. More recently it has shown promise for phantom limb pain and schizophrenia diagnosis. Many US soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are being treated using virtual experiences.
Gartner forecasts 10 more years before virtual reality reaches the mainstream – a prediction some readers may remember from the 1980s – but it is likely to become mainstream for psychology much earlier than that.
Haptics is another technology with consumer potential that's already being used in clinical contexts: for remote surgery and training, and for interpreting complex scan output.
And the computer interface technology that's likely to be the most significant of all can also be experienced properly only in a hospital so far. It's not hard to imagine who looks forward most eagerly to the latest developments in mind control of computers.
A handful of people already know what exerting such control can offer. Without lifting a finger they are able to send email, play video games(see video), control wheelchairs or prosthetic arms, update Twitter and even have their thoughts read aloud(see video)
Similarly, victims of accidents or injury provide the first hints of the kind of "upgrades" the otherwise healthy may in future choose to make to their bodies.
Seal of approval
Hospitals may not only be providing a preview of future interfaces, though – they may also be ensuring that they hit the big time with fewer design glitches.
Despite some conspicuous success in the smartphone arena, touch interface technology could still do with some improvement, and it's often less use than older but better-understood interfaces.
The technological nursery of the healthcare market could prevent so many ergonomic and design wrinkles making it to mass deployment in future.
Not only will the mainstream gadget industry have some tried-and-tested examples to draw on, but designs will have benefited from the safety and usability requirements demanded of medical devices by regulators like the US Food and Drug Administration.
Original article posted in New Scientist on 31 August 2009 by Tom Simonite