It’s very hard to know just where children’s technology is headed. We’re living in the Digital Age, with new concepts and ideas popping up everywhere — Nintendo Wii, games like Rock Star, etc. It’s hard to know what is here to stay and what’s only a fad. My mother once told me that when she was growing up, television sets were still relatively new. She and her brothers thought they would be ridiculously advanced and the center of everything come the millennium. Yet, 2001 has come and gone, and while the television set is still around, it is certainly not the centerpiece of technology. Its cousin, the computer, has taken that spot. Computers have come a long way, and now some children are introduced to them before they even set foot in school. Much of the new technology that’s being developed involves a computer of some sort. It’s only natural that when people think about the future, computers are usually involved. But what if computers face the same fate as television? What if they are replaced with an entirely new concept? Even if the medium of new technologies for children is not centered on the computer, they should still serve children’s needs while at the same time, not stifling their creativity and competency.
Interface design is very important. I admit that I don’t have a lot of experience with children, but it seems that we have a long way to go before we can truly say that we have an interface that is perfectly child-centered. For example, child-centered interfaces tend to rely more heavily on images and icons. In one way, this is effective because some children may not be able to read as well and can use the pictorial clues to navigate on their own without having to have a parent there to explain everything. On the other hand, icon-centered interfaces can be ineffective if the icons are not easily interpreted and users have to guess what a set of icons stands for. In my opinion, the best interfaces of the future will combine text and graphics effectively in a manner that is appropriate to the child’s age group.
One idea I had—and it may truly be science fiction in the 2008 world—is to develop a sort of interface that “grows” with the individual. This will change the way we use computers. The idea is to add a component to operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS that will ask for the birth year of each user. It then modifies the interface and access levels based on the user’s age while that user is logged in. The interface for a two-year-old would restrict access to the Internet of course. The settings could be changed so that instead of using the keyboard for input, the screen responds to touch. Or there could be a touch pad that accepts input. The interface for a 9-year-old may use fewer graphics and more text. It may also allow access to the Internet. If the parents are cautious about websites, certain site content can be blacklisted, based on settings the parents choose. When a link is clicked, the browser scans before loading it onto the screen. If it’s questionable, the site is either blocked completely or the child receives a warning that the site’s content is on their parents’ blacklist and that if they decide to visit it anyway, notification of this visit will be sent to their parents’ accounts on the computer. Parents will be free to take the necessary action.
Another feature of this new component is its ability to learn about its users. For example, as the child uses the computer, the system “remembers” which type of features he or she uses the most and gradually adapts them as the child gets older. A two-year-old child who loved to use the touch screen more than an external touch pad might be gradually introduced to an on-screen keyboard as they approach their fourth birthday. A three-year-old who preferred to voice commands to the computer instead of typing them may still have that functionality when they turn ten.
This type of interface would be a gentle introduction to the technology world, because it would be user-centered. Of course, it would be hard to implement based only on age, simply because people are individuals. Some 4-year-olds may not know the alphabet while others do. There would have to be the ability to fine-tune the system to cater it to each specific individual. This is an exciting prospect, as it allows us to truly interact with a system that connects with its users and their needs. Once the system understands how we want to use it, learning can take place much faster because we don’t have to spend half the time just figuring out how the system works. Instead, we can just focus on whatever software we’re trying to use at the time.
I do see potential drawbacks for this system, however. The major drawback would be the question of how to integrate this type of technology in schools and other public places if all of the children learned to use a computer that responded specifically to their own needs. The only answer I can see to address this would be to change the definition of “PC” to “Personal Chip.” The new PC would be a small chip that stores all of a person’s computer preferences and can be inserted into a designated port on any computer in the world that supports this technology. The computer reads the chip and alters its interface to match what the user is used to. If for some reason the new computer is unable to match every single setting, close alternative settings will be suggested. The chip can also save anything new that is picked up while using a different computer.
The new PC will change the way computers are used at school! Children will come to school with these chips and insert them into computers. The computer will adjust itself accordingly, so that the school computer looks just like what they have at home. The school computer will receive all instructions from the chip. Let’s pretend that Little Jane has low vision. Her computer at home has learned this, and the interface is graphically intensive, with large print and high-contrast colors. It also has enabled voice commands and an on-screen voice that reads all text aloud. All of Jane’s preferences are stored on her PC. When she goes to school and inserts her PC into the school computer’s ports, the school computer adjusts its interface so that the colors are high-contrasting and that the text is large. If the computer has voice technology, it enables that as well. If not, it offers the nearest alternative – perhaps a Braille keyboard, or another device that hasn’t been invented yet in 2008. When Little Jane removes her card, the computer reverts back to the standard settings.
If children are using interfaces they feel comfortable with, educational software designers can focus more on the content of their programs, knowing that people will have an easier time accessing it. They can design their software to be compatible with the new PC system. That way, the look and feel of the software can change according to the users’ settings.
The bottom line behind this entire “vision” is that I feel technology will become more personal and user-centered as time passes. There will be less standardization. I’m seeing it everywhere. Instead of common land-line phones, people use cell phones that are personal and adjusted to fit their needs. Many students have their own laptops (a perfect way the PC system can be expanded outside of the home!). Websites are becoming more user-centered as well, requiring users to create accounts and to log in. It seems that children’s technology ought to be personal as well. I say this because it is very difficult to come up with a universal standard that works for every single child. Different children have different abilities and interests, so it makes sense to use “liquid” interfaces, interfaces that know and change with their users. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, the computer may not even be the primary medium for this interface. Perhaps these interfaces will exist on walls in houses, or within household items, or even on pieces of paper. I used the computer as an example just because it’s the centerpiece of the Digital Age, but by the time the PC system is ready, people could be inserting those cards into something completely different.
Before I end, I want to discuss another important thing I brought up earlier as well – whatever new technologies we develop; they should not stifle children’s creativity and competency. By “creativity”, I mean the ability to come up with ideas and solutions without the aid of a computer or technological device. By “competency”, I am referring to the ability to do things without the aid of technology. Basically, I’m saying that the future should not encourage dependency on technology. I think it’s great to introduce children to technology when they’re young, but we need to be careful not to raise a generation that can’t do things without them. A classic example is our own dependency on electricity. Because of electricity, we haven’t had to learn the skills necessary to survive without it. A child who grows up with technology that does everything for them may miss out. I feel lucky that I wasn’t required to type out all of my school reports until High School. I feel lucky that computer games were still so much of a novelty when I was growing up that I my brother and I played games with physical toys, many of them non-battery operated. Many things were still done by hand as well. I fear that tomorrow’s children may never know what it’s like to do crafts with real paper, or to write and receive a letter in the mail. Technology should grow, yes, but it should not grow to replace the human body and mind. We have those things for a reason; let’s not put them to waste!
Note: I originally wrote this essay as an assignment for a class called “Children and Technology” back in 2005!