A person’s interaction with the outside world occurs through information being received and sent: input and output. In an interaction with a computer the user receives information that is output by the computer, and responds by providing input to the computer – the user’s output becomes the computer’s input and vice versa. Consequently the use of the terms input and output may lead to confusion so we shall blur the distinction somewhat and concentrate on the channels involved. This blurring is appropriate since, although a particular channel may have a primary role as input or output in the interaction, it is more than likely that it is also used in the other role. For example, sight may be used primarily in receiving information from the computer, but it can also be used to provide information to the computer, for example by fixating on a particular screen point when using an eyegaze system.
Input in the human occurs mainly through the senses and output through the motor control of the effectors. There are five major senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Of these, the first three are the most important to HCI. Taste and smell do not currently play a significant role in HCI, and it is not clear whether they could be exploited at all in general computer systems, although they could have a role to play in more specialized systems (smells to give warning of malfunction, for example) or in augmented reality systems. However, vision, hearing and touch are central.
Similarly there are a number of effectors, including the limbs, fingers, eyes, head and vocal system. In the interaction with the computer, the fingers play the primary role, through typing or mouse control, with some use of voice, and eye, head and body position.
Imagine using a personal computer (PC) with a mouse and a keyboard. The appli- cation you are using has a graphical interface, with menus, icons and windows. In your interaction with this system you receive information primarily by sight, from what appears on the screen. However, you may also receive information by ear: for example, the computer may ‘beep’ at you if you make a mistake or to draw attention to something, or there may be a voice commentary in a multimedia presentation. Touch plays a part too in that you will feel the keys moving (also hearing the ‘click’) or the orientation of the mouse, which provides vital feedback about what you have done. You yourself send information to the computer using your hands, either by hitting keys or moving the mouse. Sight and hearing do not play a direct role in sending information in this example, although they may be used to receive
information from a third source (for example, a book, or the words of another per- son) which is then transmitted to the computer.
In this section we will look at the main elements of such an interaction, first con- sidering the role and limitations of the three primary senses and going on to consider motor control.
Human vision is a highly complex activity with a range of physical and perceptual limitations, yet it is the primary source of information for the average person. We can roughly divide visual perception into two stages: the physical reception of the stimulus from the outside world, and the processing and interpretation of that stimulus. On the one hand the physical properties of the eye and the visual system mean that there are certain things that cannot be seen by the human; on the other the interpretative capabilities of visual processing allow images to be constructed from incomplete information. We need to understand both stages as both influence what can and cannot be perceived visually by a human being, which in turn directly affects the way that we design computer systems. We will begin by looking at the eye as a physical receptor, and then go on to consider the processing involved in basic vision.
1.3. The human eye
Vision begins with light. The eye is a mechanism for receiving light and transform- ing it into electrical energy. Light is reflected from objects in the world and their image is focussed upside down on the back of the eye. The receptors in the eye transform it into electrical signals which are passed to the brain.
The eye has a number of important components (see Figure 1.1) which we will look at in more detail. The cornea and lens at the front of the eye focus the light into a sharp image on the back of the eye, the retina. The retina is light sensitive and con- tains two types of photoreceptor: rods and cones.
Rods are highly sensitive to light and therefore allow us to see under a low level of illumination. However, they are unable to resolve fine detail and are subject to light saturation. This is the reason for the temporary blindness we get when moving from a darkened room into sunlight: the rods have been active and are saturated by the sudden light. The cones do not operate either as they are suppressed by the rods. We are therefore temporarily unable to see at all. There are approximately 120 million rods per eye which are mainly situated towards the edges of the retina. Rods there- fore dominate peripheral vision.
Cones are the second type of receptor in the eye. They are less sensitive to light than the rods and can therefore tolerate more light. There are three types of cone, each sensitive to a different wavelength of light. This allows color vision. The eye has approximately 6 million cones, mainly concentrated on the fovea, a small area of the retina on which images are fixated.