Comdex 98: a window to technology in the future

Jan. 1, 1999
We all want to talk to our computers, just like Star Trek. Several new programs ... can be used to navigate Windows programs with hands-free voice commands.

We all want to talk to our computers, just like Star Trek. Several new programs ... can be used to navigate Windows programs with hands-free voice commands.

Lawrence Emmott, DDS

Comdex `98 has come to a close. Comdex is the biggest computer and communication technology conference in the world. Lots of new technologies and cutting-edge (as opposed to bleeding edge) products are introduced each year at this meeting. Among the many gadgets, gizmos, and amazing electronic toys were three product categories of interest to dentistry. Flat screen panel displays, voice-recognition, and digital cameras.

As dentists move computers into the treatment rooms, space becomes a problem. Standard CRT monitors are big and heavy. They require a significant amount of space and a sturdy mount. In fact, sometimes the mount ends up costing more than the monitor. The answer to this predicament seems to be flat-screen monitors. The only problem in the past has been that flat screens were very expensive ($8,000 and up) and they didn`t work very well with limited brightness and viewability.

These problems are being overcome. New flat screens have a bright image capable of showing color photos from a wide angle. Many have built-in speakers and multiple-input options. And the price has dropped significantly. For example, Philips has a 15-inch flat screen with speakers for just $899. These are so light they can be hung on a wall or mounted on a chair pole. They will make an ideal treatment-room option as the speakers can be used for patient education and the image is good enough to support image management and digital X-ray.

The price goes up quickly as size increases. Eighteen-inch models, which would be a better choice for treatment-room use, sell for under $500. Nevertheless, this is a technology that will have definite applications in the dental office. If you are willing to pay the price, they can be used immediately. For most offices, general use of flat screens is about a year away.

The next big technology breakthrough dentists are interested in is voice activation of computers. We all want to talk to our computers, just like Star Trek. Until recently, voice activation has been limited to single-input applications such as perio-charting. Several new programs go beyond this and can be used to dictate notes and navigate Windows programs with hands-free voice commands. They require the use of a microphone office contained in a headset and 20 to 30 minutes of training for each user`s voice to be recognized.

Industry leaders are "Naturally Speaking" from Dragon and "Via Voice" from IBM. Both of these programs are multi-user and cost about $160. Philips offers a simpler single-user version for under $40. Dragon and IBM also offer a special medical version designed to recognize medical terminology.

These programs aren`t quite up to Star Trek, but they are a big step in that direction. For dentists who dictate notes, for aseptic, hands-free data entry; or for others who are simply "keyboard-challenged," they offer a useful and inexpensive data-entry alternative.

Digital cameras are being offered by dozens of manufacturers and range in price from under $100 to several thousand dollars. The latest generation of these cameras truly are amazing, but not all of them work well for typical dental applications.

Important features for dental use are the ability to take an in-focus picture of the teeth without distortion, as well as a full or 3/4 face shot. A diffused or external flash is required for good close-up dental photos. A rapid transfer of the photo to the computer in a standard-image format also is important.

Three good cameras, which meet these criteria, are the Olympus 600 or 620, the Kodak DC 260, and the Sony Mavica MVC-FD81. They all sell for $700 to $900, depending on the features and accessories purchased. The Olympus seems to take the best image and is the only one with through-the-lens viewing and the ability to add special lenses.

In the next few years, we will be seeing some incredible new products, such as wearable computers, better data storage, wireless data transfer, and a note pad that will transmit your drawings to a lab or a specialist in real time.

The future is coming and it will be amazing!