Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I/O, I/O, off to work I go!

Yesterday I opined about why a TAB would be interested in the field of disability and assistive technology in particular.  But that wasn’t actually the original question.  That inquiry was about access, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Access is input and output.  Which, if you really think about it, is the not the most important part of what a computer does for you, although it is the only parts addressed by assistive technology.  The real value of computers is in the computing, the processing.  The connection to the network is now key, but that is really just the connection to data, data which needs to be turned into information, and information that needs to be turned into meaning.  Meaning itself takes different shapes or forms as it might be for learning and knowledge, entertainment, or facilitate the emotional connection to others.  We really do not have a strong investment in how we interact with computers, at least not as compared to the value we place on the work they do.  That we use a mouse and keyboard for input, and a screen for output is artifice.  We haven’t figured out how to do things a better way.  Working in the field of assistive technology allows its practitioners more perspective into just how arbitrary our input/ouput systems are.  I/O is not just arbitrary, it is fundamentally broken.  I wish I knew how to fix things, surely that would make the world a better place, and make me quite wealthy!  At least I can pontificate on some of the problems.

The screen doesn’t seem to be too bad, we have happily enjoyed television for decades, and we are very visual beings by default.  Computers, in contrast, excel at numbers, ultimately binary, which we use the screen to translate to words and window dressing for our convenience.  The data is pure and easy to transform from pure states to arbitrary lines and curves that humans can visually associate meaning to.  This is a hack though, it takes advantage of our capacity to digest visual information and to isolate key elements from a noisy environment.  Rather than just output meaning, the computer display throws up a bunch of data on the screen with the expectation that the end-user will make sense of.  The real work is left to the programmer or content provider.  Things work out well enough, but it is not efficient.  A 32 bit color display with a resolution of 1024 by 768 refreshing at 60 Hz pushes over 150 million bits per second.  How much of that nine nine billion bits per minute does a human really process?  How much does a person really need?  Screen reader users are quite familiar with the imposition on them of linearizing a two dimensional system.  It is almost amazing that things can work out as well as they do, but part of that success has to be because the computer output system is so absurdly wasteful already, loosing another order of magnitude for textual equivalents, is hardly a burden.

I regard the screen as less of a compromise than our chosen input method.  A keyboard and mouse system was not designed for humans, we fell into its use by accident, and our inability to conceive of anything better.  Again, it works okay, but who do you know that has three hands?  If, based only on this critically important tool that humans construct for themselves, an alien race were to try to make inferences about features of the human body, what would they logically imagine?  Fingers numerous and uniform like piano keys?  A swath of tendrils or tentacles, one for each button?  Surely humans have two sets of eyes, since, by design, efficient use requires close monitoring of both input and output systems, as the keyboard-mouse combination is simply too complex never to require visual (or tactile) exploration.  Would humans really choose for themselves a device that required weeks and weeks of dedicated practice to develop the motor conditioning necessary for routine use?  Would they allow themselves to be constrained to a layout routed in mechanical limitation decades after that constrainst was resolved?

Neither the keyboard nor monitor makes sense.  Adding the mouse to the mix makes it more absurd.  As assistive technologies, we know none of it is really necessary.  Yet the best we can do is to emulate a keyboard, or add software to scrape the screen.  I know I don’t like it.  I know it is holding us back.  I just wish I knew of a better solution!

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