Scared of touching

Posted on 09/06/2011


2001 a space odyssey starts with the imagined birth of man. We see a troop of apes huddling in caves, the kind we’re used to seeing on nature documentaries. Aside from some fantastic acting, there’s nothing particularly special about this. Then there’s a sudden, but subtle change – the apes make the shift from fighting with fists to fighting with weapons.

We’re going through another (slightly less violent) evolution. This time it’s from keys to touchscreen. A great slideshare post shows how typewriters evolved and suggests the iPad as a more perfect evolution of the laptop. No need for periphals- just touch and you can play immediately. This is why they’re so popular with children (see No, mummy, i want an iPad) and even cats.

At first this goes against what we’ve learnt. For over a hundred years, we’ve controlled machines by way of buttons, knobs, levers, and cranks. Essentially, these are tools that convert our pressure, twisting and pulling into something the machine can respond to. They can work up or work down our effort depending on the force or delicacy needed. We’re even a bit cautious of getting greasy finger marks on the screen after a lifetime of parents and teachers telling us off.

HG Well's Time Machine

The thing is, once you flick you can never click. For simple interfaces, touchscreens are incredibly easy and intuitive. It sounds creepy, but there’s a greater sense of intimacy with a touchscreen phone than with buttons. OM puts it really well: “Mobile phones of today might have innards of a PC, but they are not really computers. They are able to sense things, they react to touch and sound and location. Mobile phones are not computers, but they are an extension of us.” Phones are no longer tools; they’re almost part of our bodies.



So why is a touchscreen not enough for me? For a start i’m genetically fat fingered. My hands aren’t lithe enough to make using a touchscreen keyboard anything but an ordeal. Instead, I’ve got a touchscreen phone with slide out keyboard, which makes typing in all those social network passwords a doddle. It’s exactly this reason that I believe the iPhone 5 should have a keyboard: it would open it up to a different generation of users (my parents and beyond) who aren’t able or willing to convert to touch.

Another reason is it’s difficult to consume the internet through 8 square inches, let alone with an on-screen keyboard taking up half the space. I can do more with a keyboard. This could change. Digital paper (aka flexible screens) is a technology of the present, not future. Flexible, tactile displays could bridge the gap between buttons and screens.

ringbow for touchscreen devices

Not that touch is the future. It’s one step in a long line of tools and devices we’re using to control machinery. One addition to the touchscreen is the ringbow which works alongside a touchscreen. You can personalise the functions it performs to give you that bit of extra control over a tablet or mobile phone.

Sound responsive devices have been around ever since the clapper. Remember in the early 00’s when speech software was going to replace typing? That still hasn’t happened, and yet every year audio technology and voice matching gets better. Maybe the noisy environment we live in is stopping this, but at some point it will break through and become the norm.

Motion response technology is also on the verge of a breakthrough. Banner ads, in store displays and finally gaming are beginning to experiment with it. this could be the successor to the touchscreen, at least in some areas.

Until then, touch is reshaping our current world. We’re learning new skills and working on new design styles to meet our changing needs. We’re even re-developing large parts of the internet to work with our stumpy digits and wearing fingerless gloves in winter. Interfaces do matter, because they affect how we relate to technology and to others. It might even be influencing the way interact with the world. Will the touchscreen herald a more hands on era?