The moment that sealed the future of human-computer interaction (HCI) for me happened just a few months ago. I was driving my car, carrying a few friends and their children. One child, an 8-year old, pointed to the small LCD screen on the dashboard and asked me whether the settings were controlled by touching the screen. They were not. The settings were controlled by a rotary button nowhere near the screen. It was placed conveniently between the driver and passenger seats. An obvious location in a car built at the tail-end of an era when humans most frequently interacted with technology through physical switches and levers.
The screen could certainly have been one controlled by touch, and it is likely a safe bet that a newer model of my car has that very feature. However, what was more noteworthy was the fact that this child was assuming the settings could be changed simply by passing a finger over an icon on the screen. My epiphany: for this child’s generation, a rotary button was simply old school.
This child is growing up in an environment where people are increasingly interacting with devices by touching screens. Smartphones and tablets are certainly significant innovations in areas such as mobility and convenience. But these devices are also ushering in an era that shifts everyone’s expectations of how we engage in the use of technology. Children raised in a world where technology will be pervasive will touch surfaces, make gestures, or simply show up in order for systems to respond to their needs.
This means we must rethink how we build software, implement hardware, and design interfaces. If you are in any of the professions or businesses related to these activities, there are significant opportunities, challenges and retooling needs ahead.
It also means the days of the mouse are probably numbered. Long live the mouse.
The good old days of the mouse and keyboard
Probably like most of you, I have never formally learned to type, but I have been typing since I was very young, and I can pound out quite a few words per minute. I started on an electric typewriter that belonged to my dad. When my oldest brother brought home our first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, my transition was seamless. Within weeks, I was impressing relatives by writing small software programs that did little more than change the color of the screen or make a sound when the spacebar was pressed.
Later, my brother brought home the first Apple Macintosh. This blew me away. For the first time I could create pictures using a mouse and icons. I thought it was magical that I could click on an icon and then click on the canvas, hold the mouse button down, and pull downward and to the right to create a box shape.
Imagine my disappointment when I arrived in college and we began to learn a spreadsheet program using complex keyboard combinations.
Fortunately, when I joined the workforce, Microsoft Windows 3.1 was beginning to roll out in earnest.
The prospect of the demise of the mouse may be disturbing to many, not least of whom is me. To this day, even with my laptop, if I want to be the most productive, I will plug in a wireless mouse. It is how I work best. Or at least, it is currently the most effective way for me.
For most of us, we have grown up using a mouse and a keyboard to interact with computers. It has been this way for a long time, and we have probably assumed it would continue to be that way. However, while the keyboard probably has considerable life left in it, the mouse is likely dead.
Fortunately, while the trend suggests mouse extinction, we can momentarily relax, as it is not imminent.
But what about voice?
From science fiction to futurist projections, it has always been assumed that the future of human-computer interaction would largely be driven by using our voices. Movies over decades have reinforced this image, and it has seemed quite plausible. We were more likely to see a door open via voice rather than a wave. After all, it appears to be the most intuitive and requires the least amount of effort.
Today, voice recognition software has come a long way. For example, accuracy and performance when dictating to a computer is quite remarkable. If you have broken your arms, this can be a highly efficient way to get things done on a computer. But despite having some success and filling important niches, broad-based voice interaction has simply not prospered.
It may be that a world in which we control and communicate with technology via voice is yet to come, but my guess is that it will likely complement other forms of interaction instead of being the dominant method.
There are other ways we may interact, too, such as via eye-control and direct brain interaction, but these technologies remain largely in the lab, niche-based, or currently out of reach for general use.
The future of HCI belongs to touch and gesture
It is a joy to watch how people use their touch-enabled devices. Flicking through emails and songs seems so natural, as does expanding pictures by using an outward pinching gesture. Ever seen how quickly someone — particularly a child — intuitively gets the interface the first time they use touch? I have yet to meet someone who says they hate touch. Moreover, we are more likely to hear people say just how much they enjoy the ease of use. Touch (and multi-touch) has unleashed innovation and enabled completely new use cases for applications, utilities and gaming.
While not yet as pervasive, gesture-based computing (in the sense of computers interpreting body movements or emotions) is beginning to emerge in the mainstream. Anyone who has ever used Microsoft Kinect will be able to vouch for how compelling an experience it is. The technology responds adequately when we jump or duck. It recognizes us. It appears to have eyes, and gestures matter.
And let us not forget, too, that this is version 1.0.
The movie “Minority Report” teased us about a possible gesture-based future: the ability to manipulate images of objects in mid air, to pile documents in a virtual heap, and to cast aside less useful information. Today many of us can experience its early potential. Now imagine that technology embedded in the world around us.
The future isn’t what it used to be
My bet is that in a world of increasingly pervasive technology, humans will interact with devices via touch and gestures — whether they are in your home or car, the supermarket, your workplace, the gym, a cockpit, or carried on your person. When we see a screen with options, we will expect to control those options by touch. Where it makes sense, we will use a specific gesture to elicit a response from some device, such as (dare I say it) a robot! And, yes, at times we may even use voice. However, to me, voice in combination with other behaviors is more obvious than voice alone.
But this is not some vision of a distant future. In my view, the touch and gesture era is right ahead of us.
What you can do now
Many programmers and designers are responding to the unique needs of touch-enabled devices. They know, for example, that a paradigm of drop-down menus and double-clicks is probably the wrong set of conventions to use in this new world of swipes and pinches. After all, millions of people are already downloading millions of applications for their haptic-ready smartphones and tablets (and as the drumbeat of consumerization continues, they will also want their enterprise applications to work this way, too). But viewing the future through too narrow a lens would be an error. Touch and gesture-based computing forces us to rethink interactivity and technology design on a whole new scale.
How might you design a solution if you knew your users would exclusively interact with it via touch and gesture, and that it might also need to be accessed in a variety of contexts and on a multitude of form factors?
At a minimum, it will bring software developers even closer to graphical interface designers and vice versa. Sometimes the skillsets will blur, and often they will be one and the same.
If you are an IT leader, your mobile strategy will need to include how your applications must change to accommodate the new ways your users will interact with devices. You will also need to consider new talent to take on these new needs.
The need for great interface design will increase, and there will likely be job growth in this area. In addition, as our world becomes increasingly run by and dependent upon software, technology architects and engineers will remain in high demand.
Touch and gesture-based computing are yet more ways in which innovation does not let us rest. It keeps the pace of change, already on an accelerated trajectory, even more relentless. But the promise is the reward. New ways to engage with technology enables novel ways to use it to enhance our lives. Simplifying the interface opens up technology so it becomes even more accessible, lowering the complexity level and allowing more people to participate and benefit from its value.
Are you ready? I know there’s a whole new generation that certainly is!
Photo (top): Mouse Macro by orangeacid, on Flickr