05 April 2007

Great by Default

The Future Parc at the Cebit trade fair in Hanover, Germany is a place to showcase future technologies. I didn't go, but two of the products I read about caught my imagination and got me thinking. Here they are:

Tobii Technology's eye tracking system

It's one thing to use multi-touch to move things about on the screen, but it's quite another to simply look at something, and have the computer recognize where you are looking and move your pointer there. A blink or a tap on the keyboard and you've clicked. I'd love this technology simply to review how folks use software. It's hard to tell, but it doesn't look like the "device" is that intrusive for installation in regular computer displays. In fact, Tobii even sells eye tracking hardware to OEMs that can, "provide eye gaze point, eye/head position and pupil size data. ... There are no external cameras or lightning units. ... The user does not need to "do" or "wear" anything and can move freely. Tracking is fully automatic and high accuracy can be relied on regardless of glasses, contacts, eye colour, age, ethnic background or light conditions."

The Fraunhofer Institute's Face Finder

The Face Finder is a system that can find faces, human faces even in low lighting conditions and then recognize if the face is angry, happy, neutral, sad or surprised. Of course they say this could be used for targeting advertising (an original business plan, I know...) but I think there's potentially a broader application in terms of simply recognizing when it's appropriate to "interrupt" a user. In my opinion, computers should keep things quiet when we are "in the groove" in order to maximize our effectiveness. This kind of technology seems a great fit for answering the, "Is it okay to notify the user event x just occurred?"

Both of these inventions require a computer with a video camera or some sort of hardware video device. I don't know if you could build an eye tracking system with only one iSight video camera, or even if the video camera installed on my MacBook is sufficient quality for something like Face Finder, but every new Mac that ships with a built in video camera makes for more fertile soil in which innovations, just like these can sprout, grow and even take root.

One of the things I've always loved about Apple hardware is that you can't order a "stripped down" version of any Mac. How long has Apple included FireWire standard with every Mac? More recently the Apple remote is "default equipment" with any Mac and a built in video camera comes with any Mac that includes a screen. By keeping the "lowest common denominator" experience so feature rich, Apple is able to create experiences that simply start at a higher level. Both Apple and their developers can assume a certain quality of system that Windows developers fundamentally can't depend upon. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons it's always so exciting to be a developer on the Mac platform.

It's never too late to start! :-)

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