Monday, May 21, 2007

Jeff Han shows us the tactile future

Ever have the passing premonition that you just mastered your discipline and already it's about to become outdated? I don't suppose it happens very often... either you're going into a fresh field that's got a lot of rich territory to conquer (nanorobotics?) or you're entering something that's proven permanently useful (nursing). I guess we all hope our profession is some idealized combination of those two... so practical, and yet with so much room to grow. For me, that's graphic design: something we all need, as long as we have mass production and advertising, and something that gives vast room for new innovation and creative freedom.

But when I see something like this, Jeff Han's insane multi-touch technology, sometimes it gives me the fleeting sense that I just won't be able to keep up, no matter how attentive I am to design and aesthetics. This shit is going to change my industry, along with the whole meta-industry of information technology, and dozens of sub-disciplines that are affected by it.

This should excite me, and let me tell you, it does. I was excited about it back when I saw it in Minority Report, before I had any idea that it was really on the horizon. Now I can start to see what it's going to do for interface technology. Through college, and in my current job, I've been learning to design for a certain very specific gesture that the mouse is based on: hovering and clicking, or hunting and pecking. It's been all about hot-spots and discreet areas on-screen, making certain things look intuitively like buttons, or tabs, or handles: one focal point at all times. With the mouse, we're still searching, focusing, and working in a simple sequence.

The multi-touch screen is going to make our experience more truly tactile. Now, we're going to be working with both hands at a time, holding one thing while we press another, integrating depth (i.e. pressure) and relationships (i.e. between fingers). It's a bunch of new axes, and it's going to require a whole new way of thinking... probably less like pointing at a picture and more like playing an instrument. I'm not sure I'm prepared to design this way, and I have a feeling it's going to take over the things I've been specializing in.

Even so, the possibilities are amazing. The old discreet systems of keyboard (strict set number of symbols in memorized positions) and mouse (one point at a time, searching and focusing at one area of the screen) weren't really cut out for the new wave of digital production. Some of my friends have asked, "What makes this so great, anyway? I don't see any problem with my on-screen controls..." And if they're using MS Word and Internet Explorer, they're probably right.

But the new wave of production specialists are going to be doing some amazing shit with this technology. In 3D graphics programs, we've traditionally been trying to translate three degrees of control into the two degrees available on-screen, and worse yet, we've been doing it with a one-dimensional mouse pointer. Now we can have the equivalent of three pointers on-screen at once, moving intuitively according to our gestures, and furthermore, we can use pressure to add another dimension. Controlling all those variables at once, what might the 3D artist of the future be able to do? Real-time modeling? What do you think: a 3DJ?

And speaking of DJ, how about video jockeys, those guys who do real-time video mixing along with music? That's another media space where keyboards often don't really cut it... you're working with dozens of factors, including frame-rate, hue and saturation, multiple clips and timelines, opacity, multiplication and repetition, and you're expected to do it all in response to the music you're listening to. It's hard to translate your listening habits into keyboard pokes, or (even worse) hunt-and-click mouse behavior... but with gestures, speed tracking, pressure sensitivity, point-to-point relationships, and all those other ridiculous variables that this technology allows, VJing could become more like dancing. This is a space for the artist of the future, hyper-complex and hyper-sensitive to all senses, to emerge and take over mass culture.

Don't discount the possibility that this will make your everyday tasks more intuitive, either. Replace the back-space key with a simple act of rubbing a word off the computer screen. Even more intuitive: watch that video to see Jeff Han group photos and organize images with his hands, like shuffling them around on an infinitely-large light table.

This is the future, people. It's some amazing shit.

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