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Computer chips and technology are invading all sorts of previously dumb devices. Phones are now smart. Cars are becoming connected computers on wheels. Call it the computerization of everything. As NPR's Steve Henn reports, how we interact with these machines is evolving too.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, touch pads are everywhere: in phones, in tablets, laptop screens. And Brad Feld has had enough.
The whole idea that it's, you know, socially acceptable or functionally acceptable to have a whole mass of humanity that's staring down at a tiny piece of glass and pounding on it with their thumbs is kind of absurd.
Feld's a venture capitalist at the Foundry Group. His firm's investing aggressively in start-ups that are creating new ways for humans and computers to interact.
BRAD FELD: Twenty years from now, the way we interact with computing will be unrecognizable to us today.
HENN: But judging from the displays at CES, the touch pad craze hasn't crested yet. Just inside Microsoft's enormous booth here, there's a giant touch pad the size of a tabletop.
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HENN: It looks like the love child of an iPad and a flat-screen TV, but...
STEVE CLAYTON: It's a bit different to that.
HENN: Steve Clayton is from Microsoft. Clayton says this table doesn't just respond to touch. It's actually watching us, paying attention to where we are, where we're standing.
CLAYTON: If I click on one of these images or I tap on one, the image rotates to me, and that's because this surface, this device can see. It can see the orientation of my finger, and it can present the image towards me.
HENN: More and more computers are doing just that: paying attention, watching and listening to us. Microsoft's Kinect responds to gestures. Apple's Siri listens to our voices. And observant little machines are popping up in places you might not expect.
MATT RODGERS: So Nest is the first learning thermostat.
HENN: That's right, a learning thermostat. Matt Rodgers is a founder at Nest. His little thermostat observes patterns in your house, then programs itself.
RODGERS: So you use it just like you use a normal, you know, nonprogrammable thermostat. Turn it up and turn it down and make yourself comfortable, and Nest will learn your patterns.
HENN: If you turn up your heat and then leave the house, Nest has sensors that will notice you're out and turn the heat down. You end up programming the computer inside this thermostat without even realizing you've done it. And John Underkoffler envisions a day where machines all around us respond to how we move and what we want.
JOHN UNDERKOFFLER: That all of this stuff really is, in a sense, my life's work, at least my adult life's work.
HENN: Underkoffler is best known as the brains behind the futuristic computers in Steven Spielberg's film "Minority Report."
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Affirmative. I will validate.
HENN: Spielberg didn't want Tom Cruise to mess around with keyboards or touch screens in a film set in the future.
UNDERKOFFLER: When I proposed to Steven that it could be a gestural interface, that it would be body centered - human centered - and that you could literally point at the screens and command the pixels and sift data using your hands at a distance, I think Steven loved that idea.
HENN: So Cruise stands in front of a screen and conducts his computer like Mickey Mouse in "Fantasia."
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HENN: Underkoffler built a working model at MIT. After the movie, he refined it and started a company called Oblong. For now, the full Oblong system can cost up to half a million dollars, but eventually, he hopes it will control all sorts of common machines.
UNDERKOFFLER: Obvious computers like laptops and desktops, but also computers that you don't think about: the front of your microwave oven, the dashboard of your car, the TV set in your living room.
HENN: And Oblong executives at CES this week say they see more and more signs this transformation is on the way. Steve Henn, NPR News, Las Vegas.
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