Regaining the Sense of Touch

A lot of my accessibility posts have focused on regaining function—the ability to perform a task using a prosthetic devices. Recently, there has been some development of touch. In fact, I reported on it most recently in my Continuing Development of Accessibility Aids post. Until now, the ability to feel has been limited to motor perception—how the prosthetic is moving through space and when it touches some other object. A new development makes it possible for the prosthetic to do more. The sense of touch can now include discovering the size and shape of items, as well as whether the item is hard, medium, or soft in consistency. The combination of motor, shape, and hardness touch makes it possible for someone to perform a considerably wider range of tasks using the prosthetic.

There are still quite a number of things missing from the picture. For example, a prosthetic can’t feel heat or cold just yet. It also can’t feel texture, except in the most unrefined manner. There is also no sensation of pain. So there is still a long way to go before the prosthetic could completely replace the biological equivalent, but the technology is getting closer.

The reason that this change is so important to readers of Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements is that this prosthetic has the potential to make computers truly usable for those with special mobility needs. With a refined sense of touch, someone with a prosthetic could potentially use a standard computer that doesn’t require any specialized hardware or software. In fact, it means that someone equipped with this kind of prosthetic device could use the entire range of input devices, including touch screens. In short, the playing field would finally be completely level for this group of people. I find the idea really exciting because it has been so long in coming.

Of course, the impact of such a change extends far beyond computer and other technology use. Imagine how it would feel to be able to pick up a grape or an egg for the first time after not being able to do so for an extended time-frame. It boggles the mind. We’re not quite to the same stage of development as presented in movies like Star Wars, but we’re getting there and at a relatively fast pace.

A bigger question is whether a prosthetic, no matter how functional, could ever really replace the biological counterpart. The answer to that question would have to be a resounding no. Even if the prosthetic functions exactly like a real human hand, or even extends what a human can do to some degree, it’s still not quite the same emotionally as having the real body part. Geordi LaForge (Star Trek) expressed the concept best when he kept seeking a counterpart to the visor he wore. Yes, the visor gave him eyesight. In fact, the visor presented him with eyesight that exceeded human capacity, but it still wasn’t the real thing.

What are your thoughts on the current trends in prosthetic development? Do you feel prosthetic devices will ever truly duplicate human functionality? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Some Interesting Windows 8 Information

I constantly track information for my books because I like to keep readers informed about changes when I can. Even though Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference appeared in print not long ago, there have been some interesting developments about the operating system it supports. Of course, the least newsworthy development has been the relatively slow adoption of the new operating system. A number of industry pundits are saying that Windows 8 is another Vista, or possibly worse. Statistics have never impressed me very much. Windows 8 will either succeed or it won’t, but it really is too early to tell.

The most interesting piece of information is that people aren’t actually using the much touted Windows 8 touch interface. People are actually buying the least expensive laptops possible to run Windows 8—devices that lack any sort of touch capability. This bit of information has taken me by surprise because Windows 8 really does appear to need a touch interface to work correctly. That said, Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference does include a considerable array of keyboard and mouse techniques because I had expected desktop users who upgraded to become completely lost without this information. It may turn out that the additional information helps a lot more than current desktop users based on what the press is saying.

It also appears that you may have an interesting time downgrading your Windows 8 installation to Windows 7, even though Microsoft tells you that you’re legally able to do so. The problem seems to be one of finding the copy of Windows 7 to use for the downgrade. The vendor who supplies the copy of Windows 8 with a system is supposed to provide the copy of Windows 7 to you, but the real world reality is that the vendor often doesn’t do so. The other problem is one of licensing. Microsoft constantly changes its licensing and uses terminology that even a lawyer can’t understand (much less us mere mortals). Trying to figure out whether you’re actually able to downgrade your copy of Windows 8 to Windows 7 can prove daunting. Microsoft has recently provided a clearer set of rules as part of a downloadable whitepaper that you can use to determine your rights.

I’d love to hear about your experiences using Windows 8. In addition, it would be useful to hear from people who have downgraded their copy to Windows 7 and why they made the change. Tell me about the Windows 8 coverage in my book and whether you need additional help with Windows 8 to make the book useful at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. Windows 8 has truly turned into a surprising update; one that may require some additional posts to my blogs to provide good book support.

 

Rise of the Touch Interface

I’ve been reading quite a lot about touch interfaces as of late. It seems as if vendors are determined to force everyone down the road to using touch interfaces whether the interface makes sense for every application or not. Because Windows 8 is placing such a strong emphasis on the Metro Interface, which focuses strongly on using a touch screen, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time thinking about how touch interfaces will affect computer usage in the future.

Let me begin by saying that from everything I’ve seen, touch interfaces probably work well for many consumer applications. For example, if you want to take some photos of the kids and then make some modifications to them before sending them to someone else, a touch interface probably does the job. However, my thoughts generally focus on business applications and the business environment where people are working in front of desktop systems most of the day. The focus of this post is on how the rise of the touch interface will work in the business environment.

The first consideration I made was size constraints. Touch interfaces work exceptionally well with smaller, handheld devices. There are some people who say that desktop computers are going the way of the dinosaur and that everyone will be using a tablet device at some point. I’m not persuaded that this changeover is going to take place. Although people may use a tablet and/or cellphone in addition to a desktop system at work, desktop computers are abundant and will probably remain so for a number of practical reasons.

 

  • The desktop computer screen is large enough to see well and to use for complex applications.
  • A desktop computer can use multiple screens.
  • It’s hard to run off with a desktop computer (in other words, steal it).
  • Desktop computers are easy to upgrade and maintain.
  • A desktop computer can contain more hardware than smaller platforms (such as add-ins for scientific or industrial work).
  • Multiple users can easily use a single desktop system.

I’ve read all of the arguments for using a cellphone or tablet to perform every business task and I just don’t buy them. Some tasks simply require a larger platform. (For example, I can’t imagine writing a book using a cellphone; the very idea is ridiculous). Unless someone comes out with a magic desktop platform killer, I doubt very much that the desktop computer is going to simply disappear. Even if such a platform should appear tomorrow, the installed base of desktop systems in immense. Replacing them is going to take time.

So, why the focus on desktop systems? The answer is simple. Desktop systems don’t work well with touch interfaces. Until you rid the world of the desktop, you’re going to need to support the keyboard and mouse interface. Some vendors just don’t understand this basic concept and think that users will somehow feel comfortable reaching over their keyboard (and whatever else is on their desk) to touch a monitor screen. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Let’s drop the desktop as an argument (partly because I can hear the hushed wind of many signs out there ). Even if you’re using a touch screen compatible device, there are going to be times when you want to type or you require more accuracy than a touch interface provides. Theoretically, this also means you’ll want to mouse about too. If the operating system isn’t friendly toward this sort of usage, the user is going to be less productive. More importantly, the user is going to become frustrated and use any other operating system that offers the flexibility that the user wants. For example, trying to draw anything detailed using a touch interface is nearly impossible (you really need a graphics tablet or a mouse to do that). Selecting things with fat fingers (such as the ones attached to my hands) is incredibly frustrating using a touch interface unless you’re talking about larger items (such as an entire icon).

The touch interface is here to stay. I can see how using a touch interface could speed certain tasks. Unfortunately, I can also see that using a touch interface exclusively will make certain tasks unnecessarily cumbersome and slow the user inordinately. As I work with various interface options, I see a touch interface as an addition to the current options, and not a replacement for them. What is your take on the touch interface? Have you used one? Have you used it to perform complex tasks without using any other sort of input device? I’d really appreciate getting your input on this topic at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.