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A variety of new ways to interact with computers can ease the drudgery of point and click.
One might think of work-related injuries as being related to falling off a ladder or tripping down the stairs on an oil platform. But people who rarely leave their desks can suffer from them as well. The constant repetitive motion of using a mouse can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, for instance, and holding arms over a keyboard can lead to tendonitis.
At Schlumberger Information Systems (SIS), Andrew Muddimer and Sam McLellan work as part of the “usability” team. Their job is to find solutions that help both improve efficiency and reduce work-related injuries. This quest has led to some surprising discoveries.
“We’re investigating a variety of things,” McLellan said. “These can be processes, methods, and tools that will make our user community (and by the way, for us that’s both inside and outside Schlumberger) more effective.”
The SIS group is not the first to look at gaming technology to solve industry needs, but it may be one of the first to approach companies that make these devices from an ergonomic standpoint. Most of them are not marketing to industries like oil and gas because there’s a much larger market of consumers who want the device to move to the next level, not to avoid wrist surgery.
“The oil and gas software community isn’t that big compared to all of the people who play video games,” Muddimer said. “If you think about MS Office, for example, everyone has that. Of course geoscientists and engineers are a much smaller group, so fewer people have Petrel seismic-to-simulation software.”
Some of the solutions outlined here are already available in the Windows operating system. For instance, creating shortcut keys can reduce the amount of typing a user needs to do.
Windows Speech Recognition, part of Windows Vista, can be trained to recognize the user’s voice, meaning that documents can be dictated, the Internet navigated, and applications opened and operated without mouse clicks.
But there are stranger things as well. For instance, a company called 3DConnexion, part of LogiTech, has created the SpacePilot, a small control pad that allows the user to operate in 3-D space. “You can use it with your other hand,” McLellan said. “It’s one of those devices that makes use of what the industry calls a multi-modal approach, where you’re doing something in a variety of new and different ways to help efficiency.”
Not all devices work right out of the box. The first version of the SpacePilot required a Petrel plug-in to get it to work. Later, Muddimer said, SIS technicians discovered that the device was built in the Open Inventor 3-D canvas, so it was a simple matter of turning on some switches inside Petrel. “Once we persuaded the engineering team that they really wanted to do this for us, and we showed them how to do it, it wasn’t that difficult for them,” he said. SIS gave the newly modified version of Petrel to 3DConnexion for testing and certification.
Then there’s the TouchTable, allowing users to see and manage large amounts of data in a manner conducive to discussion and decision-making, even from remote locations. The TouchTable’s design and interface can benefit a wide variety of applications, ranging from asset management and acquisitions to repair and response. The systems offer a way to access, share, and manage through visualization, analysis, incorporating real-time data feeds, synchronizing projects over a network, gathering information from remote locations, and visually assessing current and historical data.
TouchTables are geared more toward industry and less for gamers because they’re quite expensive, Muddimer said, and have been used extensively in military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They started with ESRI and the Arc Map system,” he said. “They used the ESRI mapping system for studying the terrain and moving the troops around. Then they moved to the more petrotechnical side of ESRI.”
While this was initially used more on the production side, SIS began talking to the company about subsurface issues, and both men now say that this is one of the technologies that has the most potential going forward.
“You can have local collaboration around the table or screen, but you also have the promise of remote collaboration,” McLellan said. “Many of our business meetings require an asset team that may be scattered geographically, so this offers a very big benefit.”
Some of the oddest offerings attempt to help the computer read the user’s mind. The least expensive of these is the Neural Impulse Actuator (nia) from OCZ Technology. The nia operates by picking up electrical impulses in the user’s forehead. The three sensors in the headband react to activity patterns in the muscles, brain, and eyes.
Does it work? “It works OK,” Muddimer said. “It can definitely sense when you raise your eyebrows, wiggle your ears, or clench your teeth.” The main problem is that it works better for some people than other and must be specifically trained for a particular user.
Still, the SIS team has adapted its Ocean application development framework to work with the nia as well as other products mentioned. “If we hook up a device like this, we do it in such a way that every application that sits on top of the Ocean framework can make use of it,” McLellan said. “That’s what we’re really after.”
Considerably higher on the price curve is the Emotiv system. Muddimer has had his name on the waiting list to buy one for two years. “If you look at their demo, they have a guy driving his wheelchair using this system,” he said. “It’s really going to read your brainwaves, and that’s where I really want to be going. I can see a user flying through a 3-D space using that technology and not having to touch anything.”
The goal is not to find the best technology but to offer a smorgasbord of choices. These include touch screens, tablet computers, shortcut keys, personas, mind control, voice control, software ergonomics, and aesthetics.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to get away from the cursor interaction with a mouse click,” Muddimer said. “We’re just trying to reduce the amount of mouse clicks with these other options.”
It also depends on the job the person is doing. For instance, the Wacom tablets are ideal for users who spend a lot of time working with seismic data. McLellan said that when his team first hooked up a Wacom interactive pen display in the innovation lab, one of the engineers who was very familiar with Petrel put the tablet through its paces. “We watched him select a seismic line with a regular mouse, and it required several point-clicks,” he said. “Then he simply picked up the pen and did one smooth interaction. You can start to see the benefit in particular cases for using a particular device.
“It’s based on the individuals and their preferences; it’s based on how much individual user groups are willing to pay; it’s based on a particular job that they’re doing,” he said. “If they’re doing a heavy data-entry type of application, then maybe point-and-click devices might be a first choice. But if you’re doing lots of 3-D manipulation where you are interacting with a canvas, then mouse alternatives offer some obvious benefits.”