With Moore's law still going strong and computers getting faster every year, it's easy to understand why we direct our attention to CPU performance and the fastest graphics cards on the market. But just as computers advance, so do computer accessories. We're beyond the basic keyboard and mouse configuration now.
And while we may not quite be in the futuristic world seen in films like "Minority Report," we're not that far off, either. Researchers at MIT are working on gesture-based user interfaces that will allow you to navigate your computer programs and control digital information with a flick of the wrist or a quick twiddling of your thumbs. Voice control systems are already common for devices like smartphones, and the technology is finding its way into computer applications as well.
The keyboard and mouse combination has remained strong for more than two decades. Will innovation triumph over the status quo? We'll look at 10 accessories that may change how we interact with our computers.
10: Gaming Gear
It's no surprise that computer games drive computer innovation -- in 2009, even with a significant decline in sales, PC games generated $538 million in revenue [source: CDRinfo]. Gamers demand the best in their computers, and that includes the peripherals.
Companies like Logitech, Razer and Mad Catz all offer special gamer mice. These devices have pinpoint accuracy and more buttons than your typical mouse, giving the player control over multiple functions with a flick of a finger. The Mad Catz Cyborg R.A.T. even lets you customize the size of the mouse to fit your hand.
Customizable keyboards are also available. Whether it's a standalone number pad or a full QWERTY board with interchangeable keys, there are options that give an extra edge to the gaming elite. You can also purchase standalone number pads contoured to fit your hand -- the perfect accessory for the first-person shooter fanatic.
On top of these devices you also have your various joysticks and gamepads. Some, like the HOTAS Warthog from Thrustmaster, cost more than some computer systems. But if you value your reputation in the gaming community it might just be worth it.
9: 3-D Displays and Glasses
We've wanted 3-D computing for years. Countless science fiction films, television shows, novels and comic books promised us a world of computing filled with three-dimensional, holographic images. But converting this world of fiction into reality has been challenging. We're still not ready to have 3-D chess figures pummel one another on a physical board like the one in "Star Wars," but we've made significant advances in 3-D technology.
Part of the challenge of creating a satisfying 3-D experience is preserving the integrity of the graphics. Anaglyph systems, which use a pair of glasses with each lens a different color, tend to distort the colors on the screen. Active glasses fare better -- these glasses have LCD shutters that open and close in time with images displayed on the screen. They do this at a frequency so rapid that our eyes can't detect it.
The NVIDIA 3D Vision technology system uses this method. A special graphics chip allows your display to swap back and forth between two sets of images that are slightly offset from one another. A pair of glasses synchronized to the system treats each eye to one set of images. Your brain does the rest!
8: 3-D Webcams
It's taken some time, but video calls and conference calls are finally taking off in the consumer market. With products like Apple's Facetime feature or Skype's video calls, the era of real time face-to-face calls via the computer is upon us. It seems obvious that the next step would be to go 3-D.
Novo's Minoru webcam takes on this challenge. The webcam has two lenses, allowing it to capture two sets of images. The camera's software overlays the two sets of images. The viewer must wear anaglyph 3-D glasses -- one lens is cyan and the other is red. Each eye sees just one set of images. Because they're slightly offset, the viewer's brain interprets these images as having depth.
Another approach to creating 3-D images using a normal webcam and a projector to create a pattern on an object. Software analyzes how the pattern distorts as light hits the object. The software then maps the distortion and creates a three-dimensional representation. It's called structured light 3-D scanning. This doesn't create a 3-D image the same way as the Minoru -- instead, it allows the viewer to rotate the virtual camera angle and view a representation of the object in the camera's view as if it were in three dimensions.
7: 3-D Printers
If you're a fan of the television series "Star Trek," you've probably heard of replicators. These seemingly magical devices could replicate practically anything -- they were especially adept at making Earl Grey tea. We can't replicate anything that comes to mind but with a 3-D printer you can build physical, three-dimensional objects.
The devices aren't new -- companies have been using them for a few years to help build prototype models. The printers build physical objects layer by layer, usually printing out thin films of resin that together form a three-dimensional object. They used to be so expensive that the only place you'd likely find one is in a research facility or manufacturing plant, but now these printers are starting to enter the consumer market.
There's even an open source 3-D printer project. The RepRap printer is an example -- it can print plastic, three-dimensional forms. And since most of the RepRap is plastic, it's practically a self-replicating machine. That means you could get a RepRap printer and then print the materials necessary to build another one. And since it's open source, you can do it without having to worry about licensing fees.
6: 3-D Mouse
When Douglas Engelbart invented the computer mouse in the 1960s, he was ahead of his time. It was difficult to imagine how useful the mouse would be. The user makes motions in one plane that computers translate into a perpendicular plane. It took a couple of decades, but the mouse ended up taking off in a big way.
Since then, computers have become much more sophisticated, capable of creating virtual three-dimensional environments. Navigating through these environments using a traditional mouse is challenging. That's why several companies have taken a stab at creating the 3-D mouse. These accessories allow the user to move through virtual environments in more than one plane.
Companies like 3DConnexion use a paddle-like system that you can twist, push, pull, tilt and otherwise manipulate to move through a 3-D virtual environment. The company's SpacePilot product mounts the paddle at the center of several other controls including a touchscreen, multiple buttons and a control pad. Other companies, like Axsotic, use a ball mounted in a harness of sensors as the controller. By manipulating the ball, you can maneuver through the virtual environment.
5: Solar-powered Keyboard
Green technology is a sticky subject. On the one hand, most of our technology consumes electricity. If that electricity comes from plugging the device into a wall socket or using batteries, it generates a carbon footprint. Even devices that rely on renewable energy sources have some problems -- the materials we need to build solar panels, wind turbines and other devices that harness renewable energy are sometimes toxic or rare.
Still, if you're concerned about your carbon footprint, you can consider Logitech's solar-powered keyboard. The wireless keyboard does have a battery in it -- otherwise you'd encounter problems if you tried computing in the dark -- but the battery recharges through solar power. A series of small solar panels line the top of the keyboard and can convert light into electricity.
Logitech designed the keyboard for computers running the Windows operating system. If it becomes a success, we should expect to see other manufacturers follow Logitech's lead.
4: USB Monitors and Touchscreens
As USB peripherals grow in popularity, we begin to forget the days of specialized ports for everything from printers to keyboards. Now, monitors are joining the list. Normally, you'd connect a monitor to your computer using a DVI, VGA, HDMI or DisplayPort cable. These cables connect your computer's video card to the display. But a USB monitor doesn't rely upon your graphics card for power -- it taps directly into the CPU.
The USB 2.0 data transfer rate isn't fast enough to transmit high-definition video uncompressed. In other words, a USB monitor might not be a good choice for a primary display -- at least, not until USB 3.0 becomes widely available. But USB monitors can be good secondary displays and are a useful accessory for the computer user who doesn't have a video card that supports multiple displays.
Some companies offer USB monitors that have touchscreen capabilities. A few even have webcams built into the additional monitor. These devices are great for displaying static information while you work on more dynamic applications on your main display.
3: Xynergi Keyboard
What could make a computer keyboard worth $28,000? That's the first question many people ask when they hear about the Xynergi device. But to call the Xynergi a computer keyboard is like calling a Tesla Roadster an electric vehicle. It leaves out some important details.
The first thing you might notice as you look at the Xynergi is that the keys are all tiny little monitors. The Xynergi can display anything on those keys. Need to swap out one alphabet for another? Just choose the appropriate option and your keyboard will transform immediately. You can even program special tasks for each key and condense complex steps into a single button push.
The Xynergi isn't a keyboard for everyday computing. It's a recording, editing and mixing tool for media production. Fairlight, the company that designed the Xynergi, optimized the device so that engineers could have the full capabilities of an editing studio packed into a portable form factor.
2: i3Space 3D Interface
The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan has been the birthplace for many innovative technologies. One of these may allow you to not only manipulate virtual three-dimensional objects but also feel them as you do it. It's called the i3Space 3D Interface.
The technology uses a 3-D display and glasses to create the illusion of solid images with presence. In addition to some funky glasses, you'll have to wear two haptic feedback devices -- one on each index finger. These devices have markers on them that allow cameras to track hand movements and translate them into computer commands.
Using this system, you could look at a virtual image -- such as a teddy bear -- floating in front of you. Reaching out, you could grasp the bear's arms. The haptic feedback devices on your fingers would create a physical resistance, giving you the sensation that you're actually touching something with substance. The cameras would track your movements and send the information back to the computer, which would show the teddy bear moving appropriately.
Future applications of this technology range from entertainment to medical training.
1: Microsoft Kinect
Perhaps the coolest computer accessory to come out in a long time was never meant for computers in the first place: the Microsoft Kinect for the Xbox 360. This device mounts cameras, microphones and sensors on a motorized stand. Its purpose is to give Xbox 360 owners a new way to play games and interface with their consoles. But that hasn't stopped enterprising hackers from expanding its capabilities.
At first, Microsoft resisted the efforts of hackers. But soon the company changed its position and now supports creative uses for its controller. Applications ranging from real-time layering of special effects to digital puppetry sprung up mere weeks after the Kinect launched. Robotics enthusiasts are using the Kinect as a sensory device for their creations. And to bring our journey full circle, researchers at MIT are using the Kinect to create gesture-based control systems.
These accessories enhance our interactions with computers and push us to innovate in ways difficult to imagine even a few years ago. Who knows what could be just around the corner?
For more on these and other technological advances, take a look at the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
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More Great Links
- 3DConnexion. "What is a 3D mouse?" (Dec. 9, 2010) http://www.3dconnexion.com/products/what-is-a-3d-mouse.html
- AIST. "Development of a System for Realizing Touchable 3D Television." Aug. 25, 2010. (Dec. 10, 2010) http://www.aist.go.jp/aist_e/latest_research/2010/20100922/20100922.html
- Axsotic. (Dec. 9, 2010) http://www.axsotic.com/
- Carmody, Tim. "How Microsoft Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Open Kinect." Wired. Nov. 22, 2010. (Dec. 13, 2010) http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/11/open-kinect/
- CDRinfo. "2009 U.S. Video Game Industry And PC Game Software Retail Sales Reach $20.2 Billion." Jan. 15, 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.cdrinfo.com/Sections/News/Details.aspx?NewsId=26708
- DeVercelly, William. "USB 2.0, Hi Speed USB FAQ." Everything USB. Aug. 31, 2006. (Dec. 10, 2010) http://www.everythingusb.com/usb2/faq.htm#1
- Entertainment Magazine. "Virtual Reality Headgear, VR Goggles and 3D Glasses." 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://emol.org/media/vr.html
- Fairlight. "Xynergi." (Dec. 10, 2010) http://au.fairlight.com.au/product/xynergi/
- Google. "Structured-light." 2010. (Dec. 13, 2010) http://code.google.com/p/structured-light/
- Griffin, Scott. "Douglas Engelbart." Internet Pioneers. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.ibiblio.org/pioneers/englebart.html
- Hardesty, Larry. "Computing with a wave of the hand." MIT News. Dec. 11, 2009. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/gestural-computing-1211.html
- Logitech. "Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750." 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.logitech.com/en-us/keyboards/keyboard/devices/k750-keyboard?wt.mc_id=global_pr-k750_redirect_112010
- Mad Catz. "R.A.T." 2010. (Dec. 9, 2010) http://www.cyborggaming.com/prod/rat9.htm
- Mimo Monitors. "What can you do with it?" 2009. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.mimomonitors.com/pages/what-can-you-do-with-it
- Novo. "Minoru." (Dec. 13, 2010) http://www.minoru3d.com/
- NVIDIA. "3D Vision." 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.nvidia.com/object/3d-vision-main.html
- Razer. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.razerzone.com/
- RepRap. "Main Page." Dec. 12, 2010. (Dec. 13, 2010) http://reprap.org/wiki/Main_Page
- SteelSeries. "Shift Gaming Keyboard." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://steelseries.com/products/keyboards/steelseries-shift
- Thrustmaster. "HOTAS Warthog." (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.thrustmaster.com/product.aspx?ProductID=221