Beyond the Touch Screen: The Future of Computer Control
A model of a cellphone that shows where the user is on a map with weights.
CREDIT: Screenshot of a video
AUSTIN, Texas — Many people have experienced that slightly awkward moment when they tap an electronic screen, only to find it doesn't respond to touch. With smartphones, tablets and public displays such as airport self-check-ins, people have come to expect to interact with computers by touching their screens. The taps and swipes can feel more natural and intuitive than using a mouse and keyboard. In the future, people will control the computers around them in ever-more natural ways, going beyond glass touch screens, according to scientists.
"We should be able to interact with technology through mud and plants and carpets and water," Leah Buechley, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, told panelists here on March 11 at the South by Southwest music festival and technology conference. "We can have rich sensual material experiences along with information and computational experiences." (Though one panelist was a little skeptical: "I don't really know how interactive mud would work," said moderator David Merrill, who co-founded a gaming device company called Sifteo.)
Buechley, Merrill and another panelist, a doctoral student in design named Fabian Hemmert, talked about electronics that people control with their bodies, by waving their arms and legs; homemade small electronics; and electronics that are woven into the very fabric and walls of people's homes.
One beyond-touch screen interaction that's already on its way is full-body control. In 2011, University of Southern California engineers used Microsoft's Kinect system to create motion-controlled email in response to an April Fools' Day joke from Google. Despite being a gag, the idea of having people control programs not just with their fingers, but with their arms and legs, may lead to more satisfying work days, said Hemmert, who studies at the Berlin University of the Arts. After all, growing research shows it's important for desk-bound office workers to move more. Gesture-controlled work programs would fit the bill. And people feel good after a day with some physical work, Hemmert said.
Everything's a computer
People 10 or 20 years from now may find their houses filled with places to interact with computers. Buechley studies new materials, such as fabric and paper, which might be made into electronics. One example is her team's 2010 project, electronic wallpaper. The wallpaper's electronic components are painted on, so they look and feel like the printed floral stuff at Grandma's house, but they are actually giant interactive screens. Putting a hand on a papered wall will send a wireless signal to a laptop, which can then play bird sounds or dim or brighten lights on the wall. "Ideally, the material landscape of technology should mimic the material landscape of our lives," Buechley said.
Hemmert studies how to make the interactions people have with their powered things friendlier, more human and more appealing. For his doctoral project, he has built several models of cellphones with interesting added functions. For example, he created a phone that can shift its weight to different parts of itself. The weight could indicate where there's more of a webpage off-screen, or it could supplement walking directions. "Like a haptic compass," he said.
He also built a phone that has appears to breathe and have a heartbeat. When its owner misses a call, "the phone gets excited in the pocket," he said, drawing laughter. That is, the phone's heart and breathing rate quicken. To soothe it again, the person has to scratch it, as if it were a small animal.
Hemmert's inventions often skirt the line between appealing and creepy, however. While the audience at South by Southwest found his breathing phone cute, others find it unsettling, he said. One of his designs is almost universally considered creepy. He's made a phone where, if one person kisses the mouthpiece of her phone, her friend's phone will "transmit" the kiss by touching her cheek with a dampened sponge. "It's a sponge that does 'muah' inside," he said. "Now that's creepy."
Ideal for DIYers
Perhaps the most intense way that people will interact with technology in the future is to build it themselves. Buechley thinks that more and more, people will be able to make computing devices on their own. Home 3D printers and printed circuit boards "make it really possible and really easy these days," she said. Online stores should allow people to sell their self-made electronics, too.
She likened the coming do-it-yourself trend to the revolution that publishing has undergone over the past decade. The difference between the self-publishing and self-electronics-building will be that electronics are easier to sell, so self-builders may have an easier time earning money from their work, Buechley said. The DIY trend may also be less popular than self-publishing, because it takes more specialized skills.
The world the panelists presented is one in which computing will become ubiquitous in the everyday objects in people's lives. Wallpaper and clothes may have chips in them. At Sifteo, Merrill hopes to popularize small, electronic game pieces that have tiny screens and can communicate with each other. It is hoped, however, that won't mean people will have to become technological experts, Hemmert said. In the best possible digital future, "it's not that humans get more technical, but technology becomes more human."