When you're up to your neck in preparing for the millennium and Windows 2000, the last thing you need is a chief executive getting enthusiastic about speech-recognition or eyeball-controlled systems.
But you'd better get up to speed: this month will see a flurry of press coverage about computers which respond to human gestures and systems that identify end users using biometrics.
Driving these technologies is an alliance of IT vendors, academic researchers and consumer industries, anxious to get into new markets created by the online supply of financial services, shopping and entertainment.
The emerging consensus is that for these industries to reach their potential, computers must stop looking and behaving like boxes attached to keyboards.
Instead, they must become more user-friendly - customer facing devices in particular.
That means IT departments must prepare now. They have to evaluate which technologies are relevant to their business needs. Once that's done, it's a question of obtaining and managing these technologies.
Attention is focusing on human computer interaction (HCI). From August 30 to 3 September Edinburgh will host Interact '99, an international biennial conference on HCI. Speakers will discuss touch-screen kiosks, natural voice inter-action with databases, iris-recognition systems and controlling systems through virtual interfaces, hand gestures, eyeball movement and voice commands.
The dream is to reduce end-users' reliance on the QWERTY keyboard, which was originally designed to control the speed of manual typewriting and to stop keys jamming. It is now 15 years since the last major improvements in human computer interfacing: the graphical user interface, and the mouse.
Time for another leap forward
For much of the past decade, speech recognition seemed to be the way forward. But despite attempts to develop computers that understand natural language, speech remains a niche application. The main uses for systems that recognise continuous speech (as opposed to single words, as in telephone banking) are in specialist areas such as medical laboratory systems, allowing doctors to enter details of a diagnosis while using a microscope or viewing an X-ray film.
But the hot field at the moment is control of devices by physical gesture, particularly using the eyeball. Interact '99 will hear the latest developments in eye-tracking, the technology of controlling computers with movements of the eye. Eye-tracking devices were first developed to help people with near-total paralysis communicate via computers.
IBM is pioneering the technology as part of a research project called BlueEyes. An experimental product called Magic (manual acquisition with gaze initiated cursor) uses eye tracking in tandem with a conventional mouse. It places the cursor roughly where the user wants it, avoiding those frustrating searches with the mouse to find the cursor in the first place.
IBM US researcher Shumin Zhai says Magic allows the hand and the eye to do what each does best. “Our approach takes advantage of the eye to reduce the effort required for manual pointing. To the user, pointing is still done by the hand, the natural organ for manipulation, but the cursor always appears in about the right place needed, as if by magic,” he says.
IBM's BlueEyes team claims to have developed a fast, robust, and cheap set-up for detecting which way the user's pupil is pointing using two infra-red lamps and a camera. One light source is very close to the camera's optical axis, while the second source is off-axis. The pupil appears dark in the camera image during off-axis illumination, and bright when illuminated on-axis (similar to the red eye effect from flash photography).
By measuring the difference, the camera can detect where the pupils are pointing. The team claims that the system can detect pupil movement with cheap wide angle cameras under different illumination conditions, even for people with glasses, and works at up to five metres from the camera.
A cheap eye tracking system would have many uses besides directly steering a cursor. One idea is to build gaze tracking into terminals to gauge interest in Web pages. Gaze tracking could also be used as a potential replacement for keyboards in situations where users would be unwilling or too busy to use a keyboard, such as public kiosks.
The Biometric plan
Biometrics is an increasingly attractive area. It is defined as the study of biological data using scientific means. In the world of IT business, that translates as developing systems which verify an end user's identity by their biological characteristics, such as their fingerprints, iris or the way they speak. The technology is appearing in the business environment and customer-facing areas.
Neurodynamics is a company that specialises in fingerprint recognition technology. It is in talks with a handful of PC, PDA and mobile phone vendors to install its fingerprint-recognition software in items of hardware. A user's fingerprint would be scanned, stored and retrieved when the user wishes to log in, and would act as an alternative to a password.
Meanwhile, Nationwide Building Society has been pushing biometrics into the customer facing area. It was the first UK financial institution to pilot automatic teller machines (ATMs) that verify an individual by the shape and colour of their iris.
Next month Nationwide breaks new ground in biometric systems: it will pilot call centre hardware and software, from manufacturer Vocalis, that identifies a caller simply by the sound of their voice. If the system is successful, a caller's voice could replace the need for a personal identification number (PIN).
Biometrics offers the chance of considerable financial savings for companies willing to deploy such systems. Iris and fingerprint recognition may replace passwords and PINs. In business environments, users who have forgotten their passwords absorb a great deal of helpdesk time - with biometrics, helpdesk staff would be free to tackle other problems.
Vocalis chief scientist Trevor Thomas says his speech verification software could also free up call centre agents' time. Staff can currently waste up to 50 seconds verifying a caller's identity, often for a query that lasts no longer than 20 seconds, he says. But speech verification software means agents would not have to check a caller's identity, so freeing their time for more important queries. As a result, banks could employ fewer call centre agents.
Neurodynamics is working with a local authority on use of its 3D facial recognition software, Nvisage. The system would be used to give people access to the authority's accommodation. If successful the system would mean the authority could cut the £1.8 million annual bill it pays in concierge services, says a Neurodynamics spokesman.
The downside of introducing user and IT interaction
The first is skills. Many IT departments are struggling to cope with bread and butter IT issues such as the millennium bug and rollout of Windows 2000. Finding developers with skills in iris recognition software is not going to be as easy as finding programmers with skills in C++ or Visual Basic, for example.
To overcome this, Nationwide simply retrained existing IT staff to cope with iris recognition and speech verification systems. “It was a steep learning curve, but staff have been very adaptable and they have now assumed the position where they go out to talks and pass on their knowledge,” a spokesman says.
Thomas says most IT departments are receptive to new ideas such as speech verification software. “IT departments of companies are fairly conservative on the one hand but are very intelligent and can understand the concept,” he says. Vocalis is piloting speech verification system at banks and a telco in Switzerland and Holland in addition to its work with Nationwide in the UK.
Another approach is to use specific directors who research new technologies. NCR, supplier of ATMs and high end data warehouses, says banks employ experts to research new technologies and investigate their security implications.
“The people we speak to have a working knowledge of biometrics but they don't know the nuts and bolts,” says Grant Paton, NCR advanced concepts engineer.
The second issue faced by companies is how to find these technologies in the first place. One answer is to talk to your IT suppliers. The iris recognition technology piloted by Nationwide spent eight years in the labs at NCR, manufacturer of the building society's network of 1,000 ATMs.
Development effort focused on making the technology small, reliable and affordable enough to deploy.
Paton says the decision to experiment with iris recognition on ATMs came from ongoing discussions between the vendor and the building society.
“Nationwide has a lot of people who use their accounts infrequently, and a lot of savers who don't take much money out. They forget their PIN and that's where we got to in our discussion with them. We looked at biometrics for eight years,” he says.
However, organisations must partner with the right vendor. Interact '99 chairman Alistair Kilgour says that while some vendors have usability labs, they will not exhibit at the show because they feel companies are not ready for new technologies. 'It's wrong, but that's the perception. Even big institutions will have to take account of these systems soon,' he says.
There is concern over the reliability of these new systems. Biometrics, in particular, need a high degree of accuracy otherwise they will exclude end users from their PC or customers from their bank account.
While Nationwide is satisfied with work so far, other systems still need some work. The Neurodynamics spokesman said Nvision will require further development if it is to reach its target success rate for facial recognition, which is in the 90% range.
Vendors and academics expect biometrics to become a growing part of your IT arsenal because they are becoming cheaper to manufacture and install.
However, the needs of customers are likely to be the key driver for their adoption, as businesses increasingly offer online services to users unfamiliar with PC technology.
Kilgour says new technologies will increasingly appear in the business environment during the next five years. “People who have large systems and spend a lot of money developing them are not going to abandon them overnight. The innovation is end user driven and some of that filters through,” he says.
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