Voice and pen set to scuttle keyboard

Doug Nairne

Ya-Qin Zhang believes the days of keyboards coming between people and their computers are numbered.

The managing director of Microsoft's research centre in Beijing sees a time in the not too distant future when typing and even the point and click of a mouse become far less common as users interact with their machines the same way they would with another person.

'We see radical changes coming in the way people interface with their computer,' Mr Zhang said. 'Pen and voice and vision will become the main ways of interaction. The keyboard has become the bottleneck for the PC user experience and that will have to change.'

The technology to allow computers to recognise speech or handwriting has been available for some time, but it has been relatively cumbersome to use and often inaccurate.

Research breakthroughs and the increased power of PCs have added improvements to the point where widespread change in the way people and machines communicate is no longer a question of if, but when.

Mr Zhang said his researchers already had developed software that learned to emulate a person's voice after only 10 minutes of training. Once learned, the application can replicate a user's voice to read text. Using the software, e-mail could be read to the recipient in the sender's voice.

More devices, including third-generation Internet browsing phones, PDAs, and even computers, are allowing complex communication without keyboards.

Next year, Compaq, Acer and several other computer makers will put the Tablet PC on the market. The main way of communicating with the mobile device, which resembles a large pad of paper and is as powerful as a laptop, is with a pen and handwriting. When disconnected from its desktop station, it does not even have a keyboard.

The computer recognises handwriting and hand-drawn diagrams which can be manipulated and changed without being converted to type. The interface is sufficiently sophisticated to make a graphic easier to read by tidying up the lines.

Finding an alternative to keyboards holds particular promise for people who speak Chinese or other character-based languages.

With more than 60,000 characters in Mandarin - 6,000 of them in common use - typing is a slow and inefficient way of communicating with a computer.

Xuedong Huang, general manager of Microsoft's speech group, said tests in Beijing showed people using the speech-recognition software included in the Windows XP and Office XP could input text twice as fast as they could input Chinese characters.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also is developing more intuitive software that allows users to tell the computer what they want instead of having to know what programs to open and how to use them.

Sending e-mail would be as easy as typing or saying 'send mail to . . .' into the command line. The software does the rest.

'We want to relieve the user of the burden of having to remember every single app to fire up,' said Kai Fu Lee, Microsoft vice-president for natural interactive services.

Mr Lee said that as computers became increasingly powerful tools, it would become harder for users to take advantage of their capabilities if the only way to interact was through a keyboard or the graphic icons and menus of operating systems.

'If we really want all these devices and services to reach out to all the people on the planet they have to be easier to use,' he said. 'Speech is the natural way we want to interact with each other. What we need to do is get the machine to adapt to us rather than us adapting to the machine.'

Mr Lee said speech-recognition technology would be in widespread use within five years. Within 10 years, he said the use of vision and motion to interact with computers would be common.