My Computer Runneth Over

By Dan Gutman|Wednesday, July 01, 1992
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS
Toasters toast. Refrigerators cool. Lamps illuminate. Appliances have always been built to do some specific job, but the personal computer is something new and strange: an appliance that has no particular, well- defined purpose. It can do just about anything. Most of us stick with our word processing, spreadsheeting, and data basing, but there are literally thousands of other things you can do with a PC. Here are just 20 of our favorites.

Perform surgery

Everything else has been simulated on computer, so it was only a matter of time until the desktop operating room came along. Life & Death ($35) and Life & Death II: The Brain ($50, IBM and compatibles only), both made by Software Toolworks (phone 415-883-3000), enable you to perform operations without the nuisance of going through medical school.

The hospital you work in is equipped with MRI, CT, and ultrasound and an assortment of knives, drills, and bone saws. Patients wheeled in may be suffering from anything from a migraine to a brain tumor. You make your diagnosis by probing the body until you hear an earsplitting shriek. If an operation is needed, you’re the only doctor on call.

If you’ve got a weak stomach, stick with video games where you stack blocks or play golf. The blood in Life & Death looks horrifyingly real, especially on high-resolution screens. A scalp makes a dreadful ripping sound when you open it. Just to make things interesting, your beeper may go off in the middle of an operation or the patient may go into premature ventricular contractions. The program fortunately has no malpractice subroutine. You’re bound to kill a few people, but with a little practice you’ll be drilling, draining, dissecting, and clipping aneurysms with the best of them.

Go cross country

Nothing spoils a spur-of-the-moment road trip like getting bogged down in figuring out the best route. A computer program can now handle the job for you. Automap: The Intelligent Road Atlas ($100, IBM and compatibles only; phone 800-545-6626) has a data base of 359,220 miles of U.S. roads and will quickly generate a map with the route highlighted between just about any two locations. You tell the PC where you are and where you’re heading, and it shows you routes that are the fastest or most scenic, the distance you’ll be traveling, and the time it will take. Best of all, you can tell the computer to avoid the New Jersey Turnpike.

Relive the Gulf War

Charred Iraqi tanks were still smoking in the desert when Warner New Media released Desert Storm: The War in the Persian Gulf (phone 800- 843-9497). It’s an encyclopedic multimedia magazine on a single compact disk (a relative of floppy disks that goes by the acronym CD-ROM; for your computer to be able to read a CD-ROM, you’ll have to invest in a special disk drive--prices start at under $400). Desert Storm contains 6,000 pages of text (including original dispatches from Time correspondents that never made it into the magazine), more than 300 photographs, color maps of the gulf, a glossary of high-tech weapons, and two hours of audio featuring key players of the war. It does not include advertising, which is one reason that the disk goes for $40 while Time sells for $2.50.

On the other hand, paper magazines don’t let you organize information the way a computer can. Desert Storm has been indexed chronologically and by subject. You can pick a week in the war and call up reporters’ files, photos, and audio feeds within that period. If you don’t care about Kurds but find Scuds fascinating, you can follow that thread throughout the war. Desert Storm may well be a hint of the future. Media outlets like Time are betting that as modems become as common as mailboxes, magazines will shift to this kind of format.

Issue small craft warnings

Accu-Weather Forecaster ($50; phone 415-883-3000) from Software Toolworks turns a computer and modem into a meteorological information center. The program taps the computers at Accu-Weather, the weather data service used by television and radio stations as well as by newspapers. You get up-to-the-second data, which can be displayed with colored maps and satellite photos on your computer screen.

Using this data, you can track storms as they move across the country, and retrieve official warnings, watches, advisories, and reports on disaster damage. Highway reports, marine and aviation conditions, agricultural outlooks, and even surfing conditions can be monitored.

Cheer up

Anybody who has used a computer for 15 minutes knows that the machine can bring on depression. According to some clinical psychologists, your computer can also cure the blues. Overcoming Depression ($199, IBM and compatibles only; phone 213-456-7787), from Malibu Artifactual Intelligence Works, is a program that acts as a sort of silicon-based therapist. You tell the computer about your depressed feelings, and the computer has a conversation with you to try to help cheer you up. So if you type, This depression is really getting me down, the computer might respond, Feeling so helpless day after day is very debilitating.

Ever since the sixties, programmers and psychologists have been trying to create a truly effective psychological program. Kenneth Colby, the UCLA psychiatrist who created Overcoming Depression, claims that it really works. Our program provides cognitive therapy for mild to moderate depressions, he says. According to Colby, the program is used in homes, hospitals, clinics, schools, and prisons.

Look at the sky

What would the sky have looked like if Abraham Lincoln had leaned his head out a White House window at 11:06 P.M. on April 9, 1864? EZCosmos ($70, IBM and compatibles only; phone 214-224-3288), a program that converts your PC into an interactive planetarium, can show you.

Simply type in a time, a date from 4000 B.C. to A.D. 10,000, and a location (the program recognizes 1,150 cities, and you can input any latitude and longitude). The computer makes the necessary calculations and displays what the heavens looked like then and there.

EZCosmos includes 10,000 objects, among them stars, planets, and deep-space nebulas. If you want to locate a specific star or planet, type its name and the computer will highlight it. To identify any spot in the sky, move the box cursor over it. The computer instantly provides the object’s name as well as details like its magnitude and rising and setting times. You can also aim at the sun and even watch a close-up solar eclipse animation--no welder’s glasses required.

Make your computer wireless

Communicating has never been a problem for personal computers, except that it’s always had to be done over telephone lines. Now, though, the technology behind hand-held cellular telephones is making the next stage of the information age possible: the wireless PC.

There are two ways that you can use radio waves as your data stream. You can buy a whole computer custom-designed for the purpose, such as the new IBM 9075 PCradio ($3,500-$5,500; phone 800-772-2227) or NEC’s Ultralite Cellular Workstation ($3,999-$5,799; phone 800-388-8888), or Apple’s eagerly awaited, yet-to-be-released Mac version. Other companies offer less expensive devices that adapt conventional PCs to this new mode, such as Motorola’s NewsStream ($395; phone 800-362-2724).

Wireless computers need networks to support them, and one of the larger ones, set up by IBM and Motorola, is called Ardis (phone 708-913- 1215). Using Ardis, a person with a laptop and a radio modem can broadcast information to the nearest of 1,250 radio base station towers across the country. The message passes through a network of land lines and computers to the designated computer in a matter of seconds. Ardis is available in 90 percent of the metropolitan United States. The basic service costs $32 a month.

Become a pixel Picasso

It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw a straight line. More than 60 companies offer disks full of professionally drawn, canned artwork--known as clip art--that you can drop into any computer file.

Whether you need an illustration for a paper or ornamentation on a letter, you can find it somewhere in the software marketplace. If you want some art that gives the feeling of ancient Egypt, get a copy of MacTut by Dubli-Click Software ($90, Mac only; phone 818-700-9525). Artbeats (phone 714-881-1200) specializes in background textures--grids, marble, water, and the like. One Mile Up (phone 800-258-5280) sells patriotic clip art such as U.S. insignias and military images. If you happen to need a map of the world in the shape of a cube, call C.A.R. (phone 314-721-6305), a mail-order service that publishes a huge clip-art catalog.

Watch TV on your PC

The personal computer and television set are on a collision course, and before the decade is through, we’ll know whether the PC of the future will look like a TV, or the TV of the future will look like a PC. For now you can paste a three-inch television on your monitor by inserting a TV board such as Video Logic’s DVA-4000 ($2,195; phone 617-494-0530) into your computer.

Few people are likely to spend so much for a three-inch television, but TV boards offer more than that. They make it possible to create homemade multimedia--the blending of motion pictures, digital audio, text, graphics, and animation into a video soup. The DVA-4000 can accept pictures from TV, video cameras, laser disc players, camcorders, VCRs, or satellite feeds. The television image can be reduced, blown up, moved around the screen, or frozen and pasted into desktop publishing documents.

Double your hard drive

As software becomes more complicated and devours more disk space, those huge hard drives everyone bought a few years ago now look like thimbles. Stacker ($149; phone 800-522-7822), a data compression program made by Stac Electronics, can loosen the information squeeze by doubling the capacity of hard drives without slowing them down.

Stacker’s technique is a little like packing and then unpacking a suitcase. As you commit things to your computer’s memory, Stacker searches for redundant keystrokes and converts them into shorter symbols. When you want to get at the information again, Stacker reverses the process and reconstructs it. In effect, you get an 80-megabyte hard drive when you bought only a 40.

Knock over your screen

The Radius Full Page Pivot PC may sound like a politically correct basketball move but is actually a 15-inch computer monitor that can rotate 90 degrees on its stand. It can also save computer users quite a bit of cash. People who do word processing or desktop publishing usually want a vertical screen. People who do spreadsheets or graphics like the screen horizontal. People who do all these things often end up buying an enormous, expensive two-page monitor to view a full page on-screen.

The Pivot solves the problem. When you push it sideways, a mercury switch senses it has been tipped and instructs the computer to rotate the picture. The image fades away for a moment, and the monitor automatically reorganizes the pixels. Radius (phone 800-227-2795) makes the Pivot in monochrome ($849, Mac only) and color ($999, IBM and compatibles; $1,549, Mac).

Shoot slides from your screen

Printing on paper is fine for word processing. For creating color graphics, though, you probably want 35mm slides. Polaroid’s Digital Palette CI-5000 ($5,995; phone 800-225-1618) makes that possible. The device plugs into the back of a computer and reads the code that’s creating the image on the screen, whether it’s a picture, graph, or text. Using its own circuitry and a three-inch cathode ray tube, Palette can create a far more powerful image since it features 4,000 lines of resolution and--no joke--16.7 million colors. The picture is then projected onto film loaded into the back of an attached camera.

Without Palette, your only option for making slides is to send the files of the images to a company that will make them for you. That means paying $10 to $15 a slide, whereas it costs only 50 to 75 cents a slide with Palette. It’s faster too. With PolaChrome instant slide film you can go from screen to finished transparency in three minutes.

Run your own network

After exploring commercial computer networks like CompuServe, Genie, and Prodigy, you may be inspired to start your own electronic bulletin board. Known as a BBS, it’s a simple computer network that can be dialed by anyone who has a computer, modem, phone line, and the right password. All that’s needed on your end is the right software, such as the Major BBS from Galacticomm ($59, IBM and compatibles only; phone 305-583- 5990) or Smartcom II ($84, Mac only, from the mail-order service Mac Warehouse; phone 800-255-6227).

An electronic bulletin board can act as a center where people post messages to each other, or a discussion area where as many as 256 people at different locations chat by typing on their keyboards. Your own PC, acting as the host, runs around the clock and works unattended.

Trace your roots

Banner Blue Software’s Family Tree Maker ($60, IBM and compatibles only; phone 510-794-6850) will not track down your long-lost relatives, but it will organize your family records into a genealogy chart you can save for posterity. To put information into the family tree, you use index cards that appear on the screen. Start with any member of the family and type in his or her vital statistics--name, sex, date and place of birth, spouse, children--as well as up to five pages of notes. Whenever you list a child or new member of the family, the computer automatically creates a card for that person. As you add names, the program builds a data base of relationships, drawing lines between boxes to indicate who’s related to whom. Family Tree Maker can record up to 50 generations and 1,200 relatives in a single tree.

You can charm the older relatives who think that computers are the devil’s work with parchment printouts of the tree. The program can also print a family calendar, with all birthdays and anniversaries of relatives automatically filled in.

Wear your monitor

The PC Private Eye is a two-ounce display about the size of a Matchbox car. When mounted on a headband or eyeglasses, it projects what appears to be a regular 12-inch computer screen image, except that the letters, numbers, and graphics look like they’re floating in space two feet in front of your eyes.

The Private Eye works by combining 280 light-emitting diodes with a magnifying lens and a tiny vibrating scan mirror. The projected screen is red on black, but future models will include a spectrum of grays and higher resolution. Even color is promised.

Aimed for the moment at service technicians and other specialized workers, mini-monitors are certain to further the progress of electronic books, pocket computers, hand-held video games, and virtual reality. Private Eye is made by Reflection Technology (phone 617-890-5905) and has a list price of $795 but is available from PC Connection, a mail-order service, for $499 (800-243-8088).

Wear your whole computer

The Baton Rouge-based company Infogrip claims that the Hip PC ($5,000, IBM and compatibles only; phone 504-766-8082; available in the fall) is the first wearable computer. The main unit, along with a hard drive in a fanny pack, weighs less than two pounds. If you want a CD-ROM drive, you put it in a second pack. You can almost carry the Library of Congress on your hip, claims Ward Bond, the president of Infogrip.

For a monitor, the Hip PC uses Private Eye. The keyboard is a strange-looking device with seven keys. Like a stenographer, you strike combinations of keys with one hand. Although it takes about an hour to get the hang of this style, it’s possible to get up to 35 words per minute. As you walk down the street, you can type away and pity all the people who don’t use sidewalk time productively.

Turn the sun into a battery

Executive LapMate (SolNetics Corporation; phone 801-373-4269) is a solar panel that provides clean, natural, consistent, free juice for most standard 12-volt laptop and notebook computers. Using photovoltaics, the technology that powers satellites and spacecraft, LapMate ($90-$230) collects outdoor or indoor light and changes it into a steady flow of 12- volt DC electricity. It can add an extra hour to the life of an already charged battery, and it can charge a dead battery in about 12 hours. Measuring four inches by a foot, the panel is slightly larger than a videocassette tape and weighs 16 ounces. It comes with an adjustable stand, so you can angle the panel toward the sun.

Executive LapMate is handy for computer users stranded on desert islands, as well as anyone else who doesn’t have access to AC power for extended periods of time. It can also be a godsend if you find yourself in a foreign country with an incompatible power supply. The sun is compatible the world over.

Work while you sleep

Since it’s possible to program a VCR to wake up in the middle of the night and do its thing, it’s only logical that you should be able to do the same with a computer. Auto-Might ($99, IBM and compatibles only; Pendulum Group, phone 303-781-0575) lets a PC print reports, dial information networks, back up files, and perform other routine computer tasks while you’re busy with your REM cycle.

If you want to print a 20-page file at three in the morning, you first type the usual printing commands; Auto-Might stores these keystrokes. Tell the computer when you want it to perform these commands, and when the computer’s internal clock strikes 3:00 A.M., it leaps into action and plays them back. Your 20 pages are waiting for you in the morning.

By banning your computer’s grunt work to the night shift, you can spend more time doing productive things with it during the day. By making long-distance calls to information networks late at night, the computer can also take advantage of off-peak phone rates.

Watch your language

You type, The quality of an employee’s work is extremely important to us and worthy of our respect. A second later the PC screen reads, La calidad de un trabajo de empleado es extremadamente importante para nosotros e ilustre de nuestro respeto.

Translate (Finalsoft Corporation, phone 800-232-8228) takes word- processed documents and converts them to Spanish. You feed text into the computer and hit a key, and it spits out the Spanish equivalent, including accent marks. The screen displays both languages simultaneously, and as you edit one language you can watch the computer make the change in the other language.

The program has an 85,000-word English-to-Spanish dictionary and is intelligent enough to translate sentences rather than do word-by-word substitutions. The accuracy depends on the complexity of the material. Translate ($139, IBM and compatibles only) works best with short, simple sentences.

Keep data handy

Last August astronauts on the Atlantis space shuttle used Dick Tracy-esque computer watches to manage timing and scheduling data for research activities during their mission. You don’t have to work at NASA to get one, though. Ex Machina’s WristMac ($99, from Mac Warehouse; phone 800- 255-6227) is an ordinary-looking digital watch that can store 80 pages of information. It has a two-line, 12-character liquid crystal display that can show phone numbers, appointments, reminders, and calendar information. It plugs into a Macintosh computer through a cable and can swap its contents in less than 30 seconds. All the crucial information in your computer can be near, if not at, your fingertips.
Comment on this article
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
DSCOctCover
+

Log in to your account

X
Email address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it emailed to you.

Not registered yet?

Register now for FREE. It takes only a few seconds to complete. Register now »