For some, however, the Holy Grail is to remove all physical interfaces altogether, and allow us to control technology the same way we control our bodies - with our minds. It's always been a popular idea in fiction, from the Clint Eastwood cold-war classic, Firefox, to the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson and Walter Jon Williams. And while it sounds the stuff of science-fiction, mind control is - in some shape or form - closer than you think.
Again, one of the leading commercial applications is in games, with OCZ's Neural Impulse Actuator and Emotiv's much-hyped Epoc device showing the way. In fact, the former uses a combination of skin, muscle and nerve signals to control movement on the screen, meaning it's not really mind-control as such. Epoc, however, is supposed to harness the power of thought, combining 14 electrodes and two gyroscopes, mounted in a slick, futuristic headset, to control movement, track facial expressions and measure emotional states. Early demos have shown Epoc being used to copy user expressions on the screen or push and pull objects in a game. Some lucky testers have also had the opportunity to try it with a modified version of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix game, using a standard controller to move the boy wizard around, but using thought control to levitate objects or set them aflame. Until the product launches (on a limited US-only basis this December) we're unable to confirm whether this is real magic or just a cheap trick, but if it works, expect other games and entertainment apps to follow.
Meanwhile, research into thought control also continues for more serious applications. In April this year, University of Wisconsin bio-medical engineer Adam Wilson was able to post to twitter using nothing more than the power of his mind, using an EEG cap and specially developed software to tweet the message "USING EEG TO SEND TWEET." It's a small step, but for those with full-body paralysis or similarly limiting conditions, it's a new chance at being able to communicate.
We're still a long way (thank goodness) from the cranial jacks and spinal connections of The Matrix or Hardwired, but this is going to be an interesting space to watch.
What does it all mean?
The important thing to note here is that no one of these systems will displace or replace the keyboards, mice and keypads we use today. Instead, it's more likely that we'll harness them all for different technologies and different situations, using - say - a combination of speech, motion and potentially mind control to interact with games, or combinations of speech, gesture recognition, keyboard and eye-control to operate our PCs. What works on a large, wall-mounted Internet-enabled screen in the living room won't be right for the desktop PC we use in the back bedroom or study, not to mention the laptops and smartphones we use when we're away from home. One thing is for sure, though. As technology advances, our devices will get better at understanding what we want, even using an awareness of the world around us to pre-empt it. When your smartphone stops you in the queue to ask if you really want to pay £15 to see the latest Star Wars cash-in, you'll know we've reached a whole new level.