Monday, February 08, 2010

Haptic Heaven: Why touch screens rule

I was looking for a phone number on my rather old fashioned mobile phone. It is an LG Chocolate- reliable elegant looking, and functions well as a phone. Its additional features- camera, mp3 player and so on- don't get in the way too much. I realised, as I searched for a friend's phone number, that I was repeatedly trying to scroll the screen with my finger tip, rather than with the button. This was because of six months with an Ipod touch. My default for small screens is now "haptic".

This goes back to a vision from at least the Seventies, where computers as portrayed in the future would be controlled with gestures, and voice commands would replace textual input. Today, the Ipod touch, and now the IPad(a pad is a wad of paper, and I understand the critique from women that the name has mentrual connotations; a pad is also where I live; a pad is also a cushion that softens my fall; a pad is also a small keyboard) use an almost button- free system of control based on finger movement across the surface of a screen.

It is remarkable how fast that experience transfers. The ease of haptic inteerfaces, combined with their relative durability, due to the lack of moving parts and entry points for dust and moisture suggest they will become ubiquitous for control panels. The sole limitation is the panel requires a glass or potentially ceramic face to allow the capacitance system to track finger movement. However, bullet-proof glass could presumably do the job in public areas where abuse might be more of an issue.

What will it mean when gesture increasingly returns to human Computer interface. In a sense, we will be waving at a computer, rather than prodding it. more over, I think there is a difference between texting in instructions and data, as I am doing now, and using a series of gestures to achieve the same results. Think of how we might relate using a gesture such as a raised clenched fist to mean stop (watch any military drama with a movement-to-contact sequence for this gesture) as opposed to a verbal command to "wait here" or "stop". We are moving away from logos- the word- and into a more embodied relationship.

The situation is not one of either/or but a plenum between a completely subjective experience, say sensing the rise and fall of one's own chest in breathing, and the experience of reading a letter. The sensation of breathing must be one experienced by not only humans, but certainly all vertebrate animals. The context of meaning might well change for other species, but that requires a kind of communication that humans have yet to achieve with other animals. Our most abstract communication, with written words(or math- I will bracket that, for the moment) on the other hand requires an almost disembodied consideration of the intersubjectivity between myself and the other who wrote the letter.

What does it mean when we return so much to the body when we interact with machines, especially computers? But the ease with which one becomes accustomed to such interfaces sayssomething about thought, and embodiment- but I am not sure what that is...

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster