The opinion of Thomas Smith, the founder of the photo service Gado Images. Probably, the answer is hidden in the mechanisms of evolution and the structure of the skin.
Gesture recognition, voice control, touchpads, styluses-all had their own moment of glory. A modern computer mouse is wireless, laser-powered, and stuffed with buttons, but the basic design and functionality are basically identical to what Engelbart showed.
At least somehow compete with the mouse was able to completely different format-a touchscreen on a smartphone. It’s perfect for a small device like an iPhone. But like a computer mouse, the touchscreen is essentially a physical, tactile technology. Voice assistants like Siri and Alexa are sometimes useful, but how often do you use them to control apps or send emails?
Physical technologies like the mouse or touchscreen are still relevant, because the best IT products are hybrid. They intertwine digital and analog, virtual and physical, machine and human.
To understand our love for such hybrids, we need to delve deeply into the evolution and structure of the brain. They will explain why the iPhone is perceived as an extension of the hand, why the Amazon Kindle continues to exist, and why people adore large, bulky physical buttons.
I’m a photographer, and I spend a lot of time studying and using cameras. I shoot both on film and with modern digital cameras, so I have both at my disposal. My favorite camera, however, is somewhere in the middle — the Leica Q.
This is a digital mirrorless camera, but its design is the same as that of the 1935 camera, including physical control of the shutter speed, aperture, and shutter speed.
After 550 thousand frames, I can use Q literally with my eyes closed: I know the price of division on the shutter mechanism and click from speed to speed without looking. When I press the shutter button, I feel a click. If it’s not there, it means that Q has not focused and I will have to disable autofocus and focus the camera manually.
The Leica Q is fantastic in part because it’s a hybrid. It combines the best digital elements (digital sensor, impressive light sensitivity) with the best analog elements (intuitive controls, real shutter).
Other great technological products are also hybrids. They say that Steve Jobs hated buttons and did everything to remove them from Apple devices. But even it didn’t destroy the famous “Home” button, which returns the user to switch between
apps or to the home screen. It has been preserved even on the latest generations of iPads and flagship iPhones.
Thanks to the stability and reversibility that the Home button provides, navigating a website or app is like walking down a garden path in the real world, while the endless possibilities of voice control can be drowned out.
Some devices exist only to give digital information an analog appearance. Most people can read e-books on a smartphone, but quite a few people, including me, are willing to pay $350 for an Amazon Kindle, a digital device that reproduces the reading of a physical book with electronic ink to the maximum.
The Kindle Oasis even has a leather case that brings the device (and its smell) together with a beautiful bound volume from some aging professor’s personal library.
According to Amazon, the case is “covered in a natural patina, making each cover unique” and “opens and closes just like a book.” The Kindle is the perfect hybrid, combining the best of digital books (portability, ease of purchase) with the experience of reading physical books.
Why do we love this so much? Most likely, the answer is related to the structure of the brain. People are tactile, physical beings. In our skin, there are four types of mechanoreceptors that allow the brain to perceive touch. Three of them recognize basic sensory sensations, such as pressure or stretching. The fourth, particularly sensitive, is called the Pacinian corpuscle.
These corpuscles recognize vibrations. Unlike other mechanoreceptors, they are quickly overloaded by direct contact with the skin. But their sensitivity to vibration allows them to do something amazing — interact with the instruments as if they were part of the body.
Imagine that you are holding a hammer in your hands. When you hammer a nail, small vibrations pass from the hammer to the hand. The corpuscles detect these tiny vibrations, recode them into electrical signals, and send them to the brain. There they are processed in the same centers that are used for signals directly from the skin — as if the mechanoreceptors are located in the hammer itself.
The Pacinian corpuscles probably evolved to allow us to use tools like a stone hammer or a sewing needle. But today they are passively and actively involved in physical devices.
When I adjust the shutter on my Leica (and especially when I feel the tiny” click ” of the shutter release), the Pacinian corpuscle works. The same thing happens when I press the page flip button on my Kindle and feel a nice click.
Any device with physical control interacts with the Pacinian corpuscles and other mechanoreceptors. Smartphone keyboards are so easy to use in part because they artificially vibrate when you tap on a virtual letter. Scientists specifically set them up so that pressing an on-screen key or button feels (to the corpuscles, and therefore to the brain) exactly like touching a real thing.
The science responsible for working out these sensations is called haptics, a sub-division of ergonomics. Knowing that the success of the device depends on haptics, companies like Apple publish detailed instructions for designers about the best tactile findings.
Predictability allows the corpuscles and the brain to remember the sequence of sensations inherent in a device or application (just as a physical Home button allows you to find predictable paths in an unfamiliar interface). Over time, they become more firmly anchored in the brain, reinforcing the feeling that the app or device is an extension of the body.
If the haptics are unpredictable, the sensations can confuse the brain. If the hammer vibrated differently each time, it would be difficult to learn how to use it deftly. The same applies to the app, which changes its tactile characteristics with each new update.
Good haptics — or good design in the case of devices with a physical interface — is what makes hybrid products so enjoyable and successful. Through the corpuscles, these devices interact directly with the brain, tapping into millennia-old mechanisms that allow us to work with tools.
The lack of haptics also explains why voice assistants create a sense of strange presence. Interaction with Alexa is not felt in any way. Even a child can pick up an iPad and start using it immediately. But voice control requires practice.
The computer mouse has been popular for so long because it makes the hand and fingers part of the computer, relying on the same neural mechanisms that have worked for eons. Such communication is difficult to reproduce on any other input device — especially one that relies only on sound.
To create cool tech products, developers must consciously come up with hybrids, that is, promote the benefits of digital products and at the same time take care of the basic human need to take, hold and touch something.
Small details like the clicks of a button or a tactile virtual keyboard may seem insignificant, but they interact with something deep, physical, human. The right use of hybrid interactions is the difference between just a good tech product and a life-changing product.