The Human-Machine Interface: An Introduction

Hello everyone! This week I’ll be covering some familiar ground with a bit more precision, focusing on various types of human-machine interface and what they might look like in the future.

First, let me define what I’m talking about. “Human-Machine Interface” sounds awfully high-tech, but look at the words- “Human” interfacing with a “Machine”. You’re doing that right now, as you read this, and I am too, as I type this. Whatever way we use to input information into a computer and to receive output is a mode of Human-Machine interface. Your keyboard, your mouse, your screen, your printer, etc.

Ever since these devices were first invented, engineers and programmers have been trying to build better interfaces, ones that are more efficient, easier to use, and intuitive so that anyone can learn how. From that goal we went from manually inputting DOS commands, to selecting and manipulating icons and windows with a mouse. The latter is obviously easier, and so simple a child can use it. So how can we improve on this interface? Engineers and researchers currently have several ideas.

Monkeys Move Virtual Hand with Brain

I suppose technically this is a “Monkey-Machine Interface”, but the principle is mostly the same. This method is the most sci-fi, but also the hardest to pull off: directly connecting the computer to the user’s brain, enabling him to control the computer with his thoughts. This particular project is interesting because it appears to be the first known experiment in which the subject “felt” a tactile sensation when touching the virtual object with his virtual hand, but until this actually goes through human testing, we won’t know what’s actually going on. See the article and more information courtesy of

Ideally, this interface will be painless and seamless, allowing the user to directly control and interact with a computer, using thoughts to communicate with it and seeing its display in his mind. This would be an ultimate Human-Machine Interface, but it is also the farthest off. There are far easier and attainable methods which don’t involve implanting electrodes into your brain.

Touchscreens Anywhere
If you’ve ever played around with an iPad or other touchscreen device, you probably have an idea why they’re so popular. Drawing and controlling a computer with your fingers is fun! It seems to me reminiscent of finger-painting and the various other finger-based activities from elementary school. Aside from the nostalgia factor, touch-based interfaces are very intuitive, and can be much more flexible than the standard mouse-and-keyboard setup. One big issue, however, is that the special screens used in these devices are expensive and can only be made so large.

Solution? Microsoft’s Research and Development (RnD) teams have created a system that dynamically creates “touch surfaces” on practically anything, using a projector. The system uses a short-range depth camera (similar to the one used in the company’s XBox 360 Kinect) to track hand movement and objects, being able to detect the placement of fingers, whether they are hovering or “clicking”, and can track appropriate surfaces for it to project its interface.

It’s a bit jittery in the video, but some of that flicker is from the difference in frame rate between the projector and the camera, so in person, the projected images are clearer. They say they can miniaturize the whole setup and potentially place it in cellphones and other devices, so keep a watch out for this sort of thing in the near future.

Those are just a couple of ways that Human-Machine Interfaces are being designed to make using computers easier and more efficient. Next week I’ll tie this into a look into the subject of Neuroscience, and how a more elegant and effective Human-Machine Interface could be used to treat mental diseases, and even turn the human brain itself into a powerful computer for daily tasks.

Until then, what’s your favorite computer in science fiction? Yes, for this one time I’ll even let you talk about the Holodeck if you really want to. Let me know in the comments below!


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on October 26, 2011, in Erik Marsh, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Technology, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. In The Night’s Dawn trilogy, Peter F. Hamilton describes a lot of VERY well developed sci-fi concepts. The writing is mediocre, quite graphic in places, and rather disturbing, so I don’t actually recommend reading the trilogy, but a number of the sci-fi concepts are impressive, not just in the ideas, but in the applications they’re used for. Among them, in this world, almost every teenager on every world is injected with a series of nanites, which pass into the brain and form themselves into a computer directly linked to the brain. It can access an interstellar internet (beware of hackers!), run sleep-teaching programs (I know kung fu), act as a second memory (and a much better one), play games (mind games), and soldiers regularly use it as a pain-bypasser, only perceiving damage to the body as information, rather than stunning, blinding, distracting pain. I imagine a similar program could be used in surgery to avoid numbing agents, while also getting active feedback from the patient. There is no material system outside of the brain and all interface is virtual/mental.

  1. Pingback: Neuromancer: The Internet as The Sprawl | Lantern Hollow Press

  2. Pingback: Will We Have Computer Chips In Our Heads? | Lantern Hollow Press

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