Science: Sci-fi for the man in the street: Lynne Curry reports on software developments that even the most computer illiterate cannot ignore

Simon Crosby, a 29-year-old Cambridge research student in maths and computer studies, changed keyboards on his computer and it almost ruined his life. After three months of intensive work towards his PhD, his hands seized up so badly that one was virtually useless. Last June, his studies and his career appeared to be a victim of repetitive strain injury.

Today, however, he is back at work in the university's computer laboratory, issuing commands to his computer by voice and completing the last year of his doctorate, which is on high-speed telecommunications networks. If he tells his machine to print a word and it occasionally mishears, he can balance that small irritation against the saving of his career.

Mr Crosby acquired the AllVoice DragonDictate system after seeing it demonstrated at the Computability centre at Warwick University. DragonDictate is an American system whose software has been substantially modified in Newton Abbot, Devon, by AllVoice Computing, which now has lawyers, doctors and civil servants talking to their computers. Individual customers have included a disabled 18-year-old woman who can now do her homework without the aid of an amanuensis, and a 14- year-old boy suffering from cerebral palsy, whose speech patterns the system has learnt.

'I can't understand some Scottish accents myself but the machine does,' says John Mitchell, a director of AllVoice, who estimates that about four man-years have gone into making the system widely usable. About 100 customers have so far paid just over pounds 1,000 for the hardware and software.

The listening computer is one of a range of technological innovations bridging the divide between the research expert and and the ordinary user. Almost weekly, there are details of another development that seems to have come from the realms of science fiction. But whereas before, those who preferred to stick their head into the technological sand were able to ignore computer progress by dint of the business-to-business nature of most of its applications, the avenues of escape are disappearing. Signs of the revolution are appearing everywhere.

One of the most common locations is the shop counter, where tills that merely rang up a total have been replaced by small computers absorbing a mass of information every time a sale is made. Most chain stores have these. The sophistication of the software determines how widely the information is applied, but the most basic software will record stock numbers and the location of the sale. More elaborate packages can also summarise the data, automatically order new stock and receive the suppliers' invoices by electronic data interchange.

Typically, the information is collected in a batch and transmitted to a central computer in the evening. One chain, BhS, has also taken the unusual step of giving its suppliers access to sales information so that they can respond quickly to low stock levels. Another, Oasis, says it saved the pounds 300,000 it spent on a system within months, by knowing instantly what was selling where, and being able to shift stock to the outlets where it sold best. Liberty, Country Casuals, Monsoon, Jumpers, Allsports and Whistles have similar systems.

Behind the scenes, retailers are also taking advantage of 'remote-ware', a family of software tools that will send short bursts of compressed information from a central computer simultaneously to up to 16 'remote' computers on different sites. The major advantage of this is to cut dramatically the 'on-line' time between the satellites and the central site, reducing costs. Organisations that use it include Woolworth, the Frenchay NHS Trust in Bristol, Delta Airlines, Clerical Medical and British Aerospace.

Robin Scotter, of Microtransfer in Kirtlington, Oxfordshire, says the savings in on-line time and network management are so large that the software, which is compatible with most systems and works with personal computers, usually pays for itself within nine months.

A filling-station chain whose 230 forecourts currently order their supplies through electronic data interchange is examining the potential savings. 'At the moment they're probably spending about pounds 25 a week messing about on telephones,' says Mr Scotter. 'We're talking about enabling them to place the orders electronically direct to the suppliers, then a confirmation coming back, and that would take a burst of line time costing about 14p.'

The transfer of information has a wide range of applications - one of them helping to prevent car theft. Securicor Datatrak has come up with a vehicle immobiliser and combined tracking device (TrakBak), which uses radio signals to chart the movements of a missing vehicle. BT has also become involved, developing a paging system so that the owner is alerted immediately if the car moves.

Securicor has used radio tracking on its own vehicles for several years. TrakBak was developed in response to the 625,000 cars stolen every year (a third are never recovered, despite being fitted with alarms or immobilisers). It works by sending a signal to the National Breakdown central control bureau if the car is moved while it is immobilised, and the route is followed on a computerised map. The one obvious setback is the cost: pounds 640 to install and pounds 299 a year for membership.

Securicor Datatrak had already piloted satellite tracking in Britain by fitting 32 trains in the Cardiff valleys with equipment to communicate their position on a line. Ten of the Regional Railways stations have been fitted with audible and visual displays, which use software to retrieve their information from the train reporting system.

Software has been used for some time to run heating and ventilation systems in large buildings, but a more recent development brings the prospect of control of several buildings under the same roof. In a former hosiery factory in Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, the daily comfort of thousands of cinema-goers is regulated in one room.

Energy Savings Systems (ESS) runs a bureau monitoring more than 25 United Cinemas International sites - at the same time as it oversees several pubs for Bass, sites for Fison Scientific and the renal and oncology departments at Nottingham City Hospital. ESS has been able to do this by developing shell software, CdC Engine, to understand different manufacturers' 'languages' on one site.

One screen can now be used to look at systems running the heating, air conditioning, closed-circuit TV, access and even the fire alarm system. ESS's managing director, Ken Ordish, says this means there is now no need to have one monitor for each system. The work was thought important enough to warrant a pounds 25,000 development grant from the Department of Trade and Industry.

'If you can get this information harnessed into a single sequence you're going a long way towards creating the intelligent building,' Mr Ordish says. 'These things are already intelligent in that you put a program into them and they respond. What we have created is a machine interface that allows the occupier of the building to understand a lot more of what's happening.'

The Empire in Leicester Square and the multi-screen cinema at the Metro Centre in Gateshead benefit from this technology. While patrons may not realise that software monitored miles away is keeping them warm and supplying fresh air, they would soon register a breakdown.

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