Jaundiced Futurism: Interfaces

This is an interesting thing at the moment, because designers, technologists, and manufacturers are throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

I’m not a technologist, I’m not a publicist, and I am not a fanboy of any particular company or brand. I’m just a writer of SF&F and have spent my entire life, since the age of about twelve, trying to work out what the future will be like. It’s Science Fiction, it’s about technology as well as blowing the heads off aliens — though that is always fun too.

I’ve also read an awful lot of SF over the years and developed a pretty good bullshit detector along the way. The best SF doesn’t just come up with an idea, it then works out how it will change the world.

It’s not enough to think ‘we can communicate mind-to-mind’ you also have to think, A: why on earth would we want to do that? B: Can you switch it off? C: can anybody else listen in? and, most importantly, D: can somebody hack our minds?

So, interfaces: the boundary between human and machine.

At the moment the boundary between human and machine is the touch-screen. Tablets are not that useful if truth be told, they are too bulky. They don’t fit into your pocket, and they are fragile. The smart-phone is also only a step on the path, they are not an end-point. They fit in your pocket, but they are fragile and too small. Flexible touch-screens will be the final form-factor of this line of development, but not as simple sheets of e-paper.

Think about it, do you carry a single sheet of paper around with you, for any reason at all? No, it is flimsy, it can be blown away by a gust of wind, it is really quite hard to interact with in any meaningful way (try writing on a single sheet of paper without any other supporting structure underneath it).

Some form of scroll will be the final interface for tactile interaction with machine via a visual display. It may be a sheet rolled up in the edge of a robust smart-phone, so you don’t have to unroll the sheet just to have a quick glance at what is happening or it might be a pen-shaped object with a screen rolled up tightly within it. The screen itself will have memory materials of some sort, which will allow it to become rigid when you need to interact with it directly.

Though there will always be a place for keyboards too, unless of course a stylus and handwriting takes over — which it might. But I suspect a keyboard gives an edge in creation, it’s simply more flexible than a pen. However, this will have to be a proper keyboard of some sort, because anything else is just asking for RSI.

Keyboards need to give under you fingers. This is not for feedback purposes, this is to protect your hands. A keyboard on a touch-screen is like tapping on a plate of glass, an even worse idea is a keyboard projected onto a hard surface. So keyboards will be around for a while yet, at least for producers of content.

Speech recognition software like Siri, is an interesting development, but it isn’t exactly private. If you are talking to your machine and it is answering you then anybody within earshot knows what you are asking — and the answer. Maybe some form of sub-vocalisation married to a earbud might be the answer here, but it’s a pretty intrusive answer. It’ll have its place though. It is after all hands-free.

Net-linked glasses are even more intrusive. Augmented reality? Seriously? You want to walk around with a filter between you and the visual world, all the time? You want adverts pumped straight into your eyeballs as you walk down the street?

Really?

Nah, I call bullshit on that. There will be uses for net-linked glasses, but wearing them all the time, always being on the net, always having to put up with spam and adverts. Nope. Ain’t going to happen.

Also, these glasses will come with built in cameras, which is a major league invasion of privacy issue. I can see a time, in the not too distant future, where wearing net-linked glasses will get you punched. Each generation reacts to the one that went before. Privacy is going to be a big deal in a few years time because there will be so little of it to go around.

And I am not entirely sure that having a screen right in front of your eyes all the time will be good for your eyes. As for contacts instead…yeah, that’ll be even worse. People have freaking lasers cutting open their eyes to avoid wearing contacts (because they don’t like wearing glasses) so the idea that people will willingly place contacts in their eyes just as an interface is a non-starter.

But for the emergency services, for the military, and other specialised occupations, augmented reality is going to be a real boon.

Then we have gesture-based interfaces, which are touch-screens without the screen. They’ll be useful, but limited. Too much noise in the environment, too much clutter, will make them unreliable. Speech and gesture interfaces have an added problem…other people can interface with your device without having to touch it. Daddy wants to watch the Rugby, Mammy wants to watch the news, and Junior knows that if he waves his hand just so and makes this low buzzing noise, he can turn off the set. Fun for all the family.

And finally, linking your mind directly to the machine. Yeah…okay…you first.

As an SF writer I will, and have, used all these sorts of interfaces in my writing, but I have to create a world where such things can exist.

It isn’t this one.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

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