in a vast echoing space

Feel It

I’m a pretty hands-on guy. I like to twist knobs, push levers, turn dials. A whiteboard or flip chart is my best friend when scribbling down ideas, not because I particularly subscribe to the tenets of the corporate office space, but because I like scratching down words and diagrams on something I can feel.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to work at the same place for four summers running, and they’ve asked me back for a fifth. Lucky not because of the stability (although that’s a definite plus), but because the company is great and the product is really cool. The details of the product are, while interesting in and of themselves, irrelevant to this discussion; what matters is that it’s a real, physical product. It’s a beautiful blend of engineering: electrical, mechanical, and more than a little software. And I can feel it, and I can interact with it.

Which brings me to a huge disappointment I find in software: the impossibility of picking up, of playing with the things I’ve made. The intangibility of software is one of the leading reasons I often wish my aptitudes lay elsewhere.

I don’t think this trait is particularly limited to me. For example, despite the vast improvements computers have brought to the world of audio engineering over the last few decades, people still spend large bags of money on buttons and knobs and keys not because they have any impact on the range of sounds the computer can product but because they provide a more natural means of interaction with the machine. On-screen widgets which don’t provide the same tactile feedback as physical controls are simply not as satisfying to use nor as rapid at manipulating the underlying values.

It’s in our nature to want to interact with things physically. After all, fingers are pretty good at it, and we do have eight of those plus another two thumbs to help us hang onto the things we’re interacting with. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to interact with computers in ways more akin to our nature? There have been some attempts to manufacture controls adaptable to the wide range of input tasks that software can demand; on the opposite end of the spectrum, some static controllers just have inputs for everything imaginable.

Still, these are all pretty specialized pieces of equipment: generally either specialized for gaming or multimedia production. It’d be super to see something like a USB version of the Big Knob on every desk, as standard as a keyboard. Some keyboard manufacturers have attempted to achieve something like this by jamming a million extra buttons onto keyboards. I don’t think buttons are the answer: binary states are too limiting. But then, they’re also very general, and software is a very general universe. There are so many applications for better input solutions, and then software would have to expose itself to the new controllers, and it’d be the same headache as the introduction of the mouse all over again.

When can we have our interactive hologram displays, please?

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