Control Freak – Is the industry taking this a bit too seriously?

Note; this was supposed to be published a couple of weeks ago but for some reason, I forgot. So I’m doing it now. Enjoy.

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So, CES is over for another year and whilst there were some really nice things there, one thing has left me rather puzzled and perplexed.

Voice controls, motion control, gesture control, eye-tracking control, twitch control, tap control – there was an awful lot of control going on, and each came with an accompanying demonstration of just how these controls can operate.

Which is lovely. I am all for experimentation, because it is through that we can see if there is any valid options for change. The games, TV, computer and gadget industries all have wildly different usages for differing types of control – a TV can use gesture control, for example, so someone waves their hand to the left and the channel on the TV changes. Voice control can be used to search for something on the internet, much like Kinect offers, in multiple ways. Motion control is great for mobile phones – which can resize based on tilt, or be silenced by being turned over.

Thing is, I get the impression that some of the concepts are now beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel, or simply are reinventing the wheel. Eye tracking technology that tracks your eye movement on a browser, so when you reach the bottom of the page, the screen automatically begins to scroll down. Great. Now… umm… how much will this revolutionary technology cost in new monitors? Versus the scroll-wheel, which is arguably a cheap and simple alternative.

Then there was tap control, tapping in rhythm to activate certain devices, unlock mobiles as a code or dial key numbers. Again, one can argue this may have some practical applications – eventually, but as cutting-edge software, isn’t this perhaps a little… I’m not sure… crude?

A lot of people are excited that 2012 will see a very seismic shift from traditional control mechanisms to more sophisticated, semi-interactive mechanisms. Where a gesture, a thought, the position of our eye, or the shape of our mouths, has a wealth of opportunity.

But I suspect they may all find themselves disappointed.

Touchscreen is just now becoming quite big, and there’s a reason. Now its less buggy, more reliable and cheaper to do, it’s taking advantage of a very human need to interact with something physically. And it is this very basic understanding of the human psyche that even science fiction writers have known for half a century – there’s a reason why psychic technology is often seen as inhumane or alien or used as an evil plot mechanic, because it means we’re not touching, we’re not feeling, we’re not interacting in a physical sense that provides sensory feedback to the brain. Human beings are, at the end of the day, biological creatures and from a very young age we are taught to play – and to play, we interact with toys, paper, crayons, machines, control pads, simple mechanical constructs – it’s a deeply human need to want to transcend the need for effort, but its also a deeply human need to want to have a sensory response to an action, and we’re fast coming to points where this will be circumvented. Much like the Uncanny Valley effect, the result will be systems and designs that are inherently suspicious, or at worst, just become boring. Millions of dollars spent on software and hardware and the end result people go… “Well, yes. It’s nice. But it’s a little boring, and for that price…”

This isn’t to say that there is no room for other methods, or that they won’t have a role to play in the future. To say such a thing would be rather silly. In security, in helping those who are disabled or of limited capacity, in the new wave of TVs and voice-activated devices, the genie is out of the bottle and there are going to be hundreds more variations, alternatives and experiments in the next few years all vying to tackle some of mankind’s greatest problems and frustrations with ever-increasingly sophisticated software and hardware.

But I wonder how we, as people, will feel about a world where more and more is spent on less and less effort. Where the act of movement is about entertainment, not practicality. In an era where obesity is an issue we can no longer ignore, can we continue to justify – in a moral and ethical sense – technology that continues to encourage minimal effort? Where what we do is done without much in the way of exhaustion?

It’s certainly lovely to see people tackling problems of security though through pressure-tracking with timed taps. To see how those who are sensory-impaired from birth, or by accident, able to interact and lead independent and fulfilling lives. These are perfectly valid reasons to want to promote and develop these new ways of interacting, of engaging, because it means we’re safer and more people can have lives that they may not have been able to have prior to its existence. I don’t think anyone would want to stop those who desperately need it from getting access to even the earliest software prototypes and hardware devices.

But on the other hand, many of us appear – mostly – to be quite happy with what we have. And convincing people who are already using intuitive, interactive and tactile systems to convert to something that is less on all three counts for them may be somewhat of a hard sell for the moment.

Still, this is also human nature, and I suppose fighting against progress is all too often an exercise in futility. The genie is out of the bottle, and it is up to us as a species, whatever new and fantastic things we find to control, engage and interact with the world around us, to do so with respect, understanding and humility.

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