Speak Nicely To Your Pc

Don't tell them you can type," said the folk wisdom of the 1960s, lest women job applicants be relegated to the secretarial pool. That advice may still be relevant, but recent developments in the computer industry raise questions about just how long any of us will be chained to the keyboard. Three major shifts are important: pen-based computing, voice recognition and the wearable computer.

is already among us. Instead of using a keyboard, these systems allow users to enter information by hand-writing on a screen that sits flat on a desk. Grid Systems, a California subsidiary of Tandy, produces handheld computers that effectively function as electronic clipboards. UPS, for example, uses Grid computers to monitor shipments and deliveries, rather than its traditional paper system. Now, when an employee uses an electronic pen to enter information on the computer screen, it can be immediately transferred to UPS's central computer. The company hopes that the pen system will cut down on the huge amount of paper-work it generates daily.

At this week's massive Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, which traditionally attracts 100,000 people, some 15 companies will introduce similar pen-based machines; one, a California start-up called Momenta, will let users choose between an electronic pen or a keyboard. Someone can take it on the road-or even down the hall--leaving the keyboard behind. Why would anyone want to do that? One use might be to take notes at business meetings. It's still considered bad manners to bring along a portable PC and clack away at a keyboard while the boss is talking.

Depending on the computer, the handwritten text can either be stored as it was scrawled or it can be converted into typescript. The latter task is more difficult and far less reliable. The problem is that computers have difficulty recognizing cursive handwriting: is that an "e" or a "c" or an "o"? By contrast, a system such as the Grid-UPS which copies and recalls a signature as written is much simpler and could be a great help to form fillers in all walks of life.

Another emerging keyboard alternative is voice recognition. This would convert the computer into a very high-tech dictation device. With the advent of compact discs, the basic technological battle has been won: sound, be it spoken, sung or played, can be recorded and converted into digital bits. But making that basic technological feat accessible and affordable to an office worker has remained elusive. The problem comes in attempting to convert the digital bits into type. Engineers are still struggling to develop software that will comprehend everything from a Boston "r" to an Arizona drawl. For computers, converting speech is far harder than even reading handwriting. Even optimists figure that a computer that can take dictation is at least five years away.

But some progress has been made. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has developed a system that can dependably recognize about 5,000 words. And IBM has a similar system in its labs. Neither is commercially available yet. For those who can't wait to order computers around, there are a few products on the market. One example is a software package from Articulate Systems, for the Macintosh. (Much of the new Mae line comes equipped with microphones.) While more limited than the Carnegie Mellon or IBM projects, this lets one say "edit" or "delete" or "save" and the computer responds as if it has been commanded by a keystroke.

The ultimate escape from the keyboard is also a fashion statement. It's "the wear. able computer" and Japanese companies are busily trying to get beyond prototypes. The concept is simple. You wear your central processing unit (CPU, or technically, the computer's guts) in a pouch around your waist. It connects to a special set of eyeglasses. The eyeglasses have liquid crystal displays, effectively producing the equivalent of a computer screen right in the lenses in front of your eyes. (You can also turn off the lenses, making them entirely clear, if you want, say, to park the car.) The eyeglasses will also contain miniature microphones on the temples, to provide voice recognition. Don't look for these in stores any time soon, however, but when they do show up they'll be the last word in true nerd style.

All these computer modifications--pen, voice and body--will force us to act like computers ourselves. Pen computers work best when users write in simple block characters. They're further advanced in Japan where schoolchildren are taught to carefully--and uniformly--inscribe their characters, always beginning and ending in the same spot. Voice recognition is most effective when one speaks in the same measured tones; get a hoarse throat--or get excited!--and your computer probably won't understand you. Best always to sound like the malevolent computer HAL who issued directions to astronaut Dave in the film "2001." And as for body computers: well, you are the computer. Lose your computer eyeglasses or your microcomputer waist pouch, and you've effectively crashed.