29 April 2009

Thinking about text and TVs

The latest Gurteen Knowledge Cafe was hosted by the British Computer Society (BCS) and was on "Imagining the knowledge technologies of the future".

The evening started in the familiar Gurteen way (if it works well, why change it?) with some unstructured networking time fuelled by soft drinks and biscuits before we moved into the large meeting room to find a friendly looking table to join.

The formal part of the evening started with three sessions of speed networking where we are forced to make contact with people we had not met before. For some reason each Knowledge Cafe attracts many first-time attendees so while there are many regulars (myself included) there are always plenty of new people to meet.

In my sessions I met Madeline (knowledge manager for a law firm), Laila (operations manager for a small systems integration company) and Ian (a young geek).

The session on future technologies was introduced by three BCS members Alan Pollard (President), Conrad Taylor (Gurteen regular) and Chris Yapp.

They gave some examples of how knowledge technologies have changed over the years and also some examples of things that have been predicted but not yet happened (e.g. ubiquitous speech recognition and effective virtual collaboration) before leaving us to take the topic in any direction that we wanted on our individual tables of 5-6 people.

After 20 minutes or so there was a break and some people moved tables. This happened again after another 20 minutes so that we each had three sessions on the topic with different people, thus allowing us to get different perspectives on the same subject.

The final session brought us all back into one group and anybody who wanted to share something from their discussions with everybody could do so. It is not necessary to speak in this session and most people are happy just to take away their own thoughts on what they have learnt.

To show the range of the conversations that had been had I'll give an example of somebody else's thoughts before adding my own. One table came up with the concept of a virtual angel that can be summoned to help you with all sorts of life issues, including love. This concept was slightly ruined for me because I had recently watched Disclosure (for the umpteenth time) in which Michael Douglas goes into a virtual environment where the help function is manifested as a rather dubious looking angel.

My thoughts were, unusually for me, rather technical and covered text and television.

My first table started talking about Human-Computer Interaction (somebody else had just watched Total Recall) and it soon became clear that text is still the major way that we share information and is likely to remain so for some time but the technology to support it is old and no longer fit for purpose. We all know that the qwerty keyboard was designed to slow typists down yet we all still use them.

Resistance to change is clearly an issue here as some better text technologies have been developed but have not been widely adopted. I recall a one-handed keyboard with just five buttons winning an award on Tomorrow's World because of it's speed and simplicity. There are also ways to write faster, e.g. Pitman Shorthand. Predictive text is common on mobile phones but has yet to make the transition to PCs (though the ZX Spectrum is a good example of what can be done albeit with a limited vocabulary).

Good speech-to-text and text-to-speech would also improve the way that we create and consume text, Audio input also has the advantage that the play speed can be varied to allow quick listening of simple text.

There is also a case for looking at the English language itself to see if significant improvements can be made in the time that it takes to write correctly, including correction times. Revisiting some archaic spellings could be part of this as could a wider and more formal adoption of l33t; we may not always approve of shorthands like "m8" and "OMG" but they are faster to write!

One of the tables that I joined and started to develop a 2x2 matrix of social and technical capabilities and were looking at the issues that face the group with low skills in both areas. It occurred to me that the television is best placed to help here as it is ubiquitous and easily understood.

Previous convergence attempts had been to marry the PC and the TV, normally by doing little more than using the TV screen as a PC monitor. There is a problem with this approach in that you are bringing the complex PC world to the PC and having a dual use screen does not make this any easier for the non technical user. I think that a better approach is to bring the simpler technologies found on mobile phones to the TV - think of the TV screen as a large screen for the mobile and the mobile as a remote control for the TV. In this world the interactive user would be using applications specifically tailored for the TV rather than going through the generic PC environments of Windows and a browser. Imagine the Apple Apps Store delivered through your TV!

The excited conversations continued over the excellent buffet and wine provided by the BCS and then over the Timothy Taylor's Landlord provided by the Coal Hole nearby.

It was yet another truly excellent Gurteen Knowledge Cafe and I really do not know what I would do for personal learning if I did not go to these. Thanks again David!


  1. 'Tis difficult, sometimes, to enter the conversation of others. These were no ordinary 'virtual angels', they were holograms of you and me that provided such support (and challenges, too) that helped the person be all that they could and chose to be.
    They could be called upon and come calling.
    How come we haven't got the technology yet? Or have we?

  2. Fascinating subject. The text-to-PC idea is long overdue, isn't it? Maybe it would even help some people speak properly.(Sorry, the old school teacher in me!) On the other hand the reply would probably come out in some form of robot-like American accent, much like Hawking's machine! Please,no!

  3. The one-handed text input keyboard you mention was called the Microwriter and I knew a couple of people who used one; they both said it was easy to learn the chord-set combinations to produce the letters. Later the idea was revived for a while in a little PDA called the Agenda, which had a QWERTY pad but embedded the Microwriter pad within it.
    -- Conrad


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