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October 22, 2002

Professor, organization bring computers to people

From: The BYU Newsnet, UT
Oct. 22, 2002

Someday, you will be able to call your microwave and tell it to start dinner. Someday, thanks to a computer-monitored camera embedded in your ceiling, you will be able to turn on your lamp, your computer, and your television on with a click of a laser pointer.

And that someday might be closer than you think, courtesy of Brigham Young University computer science professor, Dan Olsen, and the Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction.

"It's about toys," said Olsen, of the organization, which recently honored him with its Lifetime Service Award. "We want to give people more opportunities to take the mundane things out of their lives. We want to take computers and put them where the people are, instead of putting the people where the computers are."

SIGCHI is a group of computer scientists and social scientists who, as Olsen said, "study how to make computers easier for people to use for all parts of work and play."

Tom Moran, chair of the SIGCHI awards committee, said Olsen received the Lifetime Service Award in recognition of his many contributions, including playing a key role in organizing conferences and serving as SIGCHI's vice chair of finance and publications.

"It is gratifying to feel that your friends actually appreciate what you do," Olsen said of the award.

Olsen said he feels human-computer interaction is a necessary field of study in an age when technology is facilitating communication, but becoming more and more difficult to understand.

Olsen is currently developing technology, which will allow a user to turn a computer on simply by touching it, rather than hunting for a button or switch. The technology could dramatically increase ease of computer use, especially for older people or new users who may not grasp computer jargon easily.

Olsen said the hardware is already in development, and, if mass-produced, could be manufactured for less than $25 a unit, making it affordable for the general public.

"When Sony decides that it's marketable, they'll manufacture it," Olsen said. "We just have to show people how to use it, and why it's cool."

But too much fun and games can be a bad thing. A downside of computer technology, Olsen said, is that it tends to entice people away from their families. In a society where quality family time already seems to be in decline, making technology even more irresistible could compound the problem.

The solution?

"Computers are going to have to change their shape," Olsen said. "As long as a computer is something you use alone, it will separate you from other people."

Olsen said one of the problems with computer use is that it is uncomfortable for people to work at a computer together, since there is only one keyboard and one mouse, essentially turning it into a solo device.

He, SIGCHI, and technology companies are working together to create new innovations in order to make computer use more of a family experience.

One of SIGCHI's partners, Mitsubishi, is developing a flat table, sensitive to touch, to replace the traditional keyboard-and-mouse interface. Users will be able to gather around, create or open digital photographs on its surface, and actually pass them to each other.

Other developments in the new "gesture" technology include "chips with eyes," which will allow computers perform tasks such as negotiating phone calls for the deaf.

Copyright ©2002 BYU NewsNet