Make It Easy

THE UNFINISHED REVOLUTION

Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us

By Michael L. Dertouzos

HarperCollins 224pp $26

Simpler is better. And nothing cries out for simplicity the way personal computers do. For far too long, people have been prostrating themselves before this icon of technology, coping with its peculiarities and putting up with its maddening frailties. Isn't it high time for computers to adapt to us, not us to them?

That's the underlying theme of Michael L. Dertouzos' latest book, The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us. Today's systems are still quirky kludges, complains the head of the Laboratory for Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has hit some of these same chords in earlier books and articles. The most egregious lack of progress, he notes, is in the all-important user interface--the "face" computers present to us. Programs running under Microsoft Corp.'s Windows software may be graphical, Dertouzos concedes. But user-friendly they ain't.

It's comforting to know that this computer-science luminary is as miffed as the rest of us. Unlike the rest of us, though, Dertouzos is in a position to do something about it. His game plan is dubbed Oxygen Project--making computers as easy to use as breathing. It's a five-year, $50 million campaign funded by the Pentagon and an international who's who of companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, and Nokia.

Dertouzos lays out some exciting prospects. For example, there's Handy 21, a next-generation personal digital assistant. Expanding what current PDAs do, it would be a mobile phone, foreign-language translator, digital voice recorder, universal remote control for home appliances, and more--all stuffed as software into a pocket-size gizmo that can reconfigure itself on demand.

Then there's Enviro 21, a vision of rooms and offices where computing literally disappears into the walls. Log-ons and passwords would be superfluous because video cameras would recognize your face and even interpret facial expressions. Using a keyboard or mouse would be optional, because speech-recognition technology would let people converse with computers naturally. The nearest paper-thin wall-covering display would flicker on if you needed to see something.

Such concepts are hardly new. For two decades, researchers at Xerox Corp.'s famed Palo Alto Research Center have been working on what they call ubiquitous computing, with silicon smarts and wireless communications embedded in myriad everyday objects, from alarm clocks to doorknobs to shoes. Sun Microsystems, IBM, Carnegie Mellon University, Bell Laboratories, and others have similar dreams--dubbed pervasive computing, invisible computing, or ambient computing.

As a result, much of Dertouzos' book will seem old-hat to some readers. But with a war chest of $50 million and the active participation of dozens of researchers from industry, Oxygen Project may be in the best position to finally breathe some humanity into computers and make them as simple to "drive" as cars. Dertouzos figures that radical shifts could be under way by decade's end, but fully realizing the dream of ubiquitous/pervasive/invisible computing may take a couple more decades. When the unfinished revolution is finally finished, Dertouzos hopes we'll have the time to smell the roses and the computer power to bring new reasoning to the mysteries of life.

By Otis Port

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