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Touchscreens have no hand

One reason I make sculpture is that I have stared long enough at the glowing flat rectangles of computer screens that show only flatland representations of real things. I like to make real things and love the physicality of making sculpture that resides in the physical world of three-space and time. The surfaces of my work often express tool marks and hand marks growing out of the handcraft of artwork production.These marks express the "hand" of the artwork and its makers. When I talk about my sculptures
on artist tours I unconsciously run my hands over the surface of the work and, for smaller pieces, pick them up and hold them. These surfaces are complex, luscious, subtle, responsive, warm or cool, and three-dimensional to the touch. All that micro-physical information is made by the hand and is detected by hand and eye when the artwork is seen and touched.

There is no such hand in touchscreen computer devices. The touchscreen has no texture variation, has no physical surface information, is dead flat, reflects ambient light noise, and features oily fingerprint debris when seen at a raking angle. Also
the elegant sharp edges that encase many touchscreens require users to desensitize their hands in order to ignore the physical discomfort produced by the aggressive edges. Last year in Cupertino, I yelled at some people about touchscreens that paid precise attention to finger touches from the user but not to how the device in turn touches the hands of the user (and produces divot edge-lines in the flesh).

Bret Victor has some intriguing thoughts about why touchscreens should be worthy of the human hand here.

Bret Victor's beautiful essay is, for me, a celebration of the hand rather than about interface possibilities.

There are big engineering issues in creating even book-like tactile experiences on or near screens, since flat images require glowing hard flatland display surfaces, a requirement contrary to tactile experiences. Perhaps there will be a few small steps toward tactility. Maybe tactility will become a feature in the endless feature cycle of devices. Dimensional compression is dimensional compression, however, and even those sentient beings that reside in string-theory N space probably whine that their N - 1 dimensional display device (necessary to fit in their N - 1 dimensional pockets) fails to capture the rich experience of their real N space.

So instead let us give more time for doing physical things in the real world and less time for staring at (and touching) the glowing flat rectangle.

Plant a plant, walk the dogs, read a real book, go to the opera. Or hammer glowing hot metal in a blacksmith shop:

This video is also available on YouTube and Vimeo

-- Edward Tufte

Different (and cross) purposes. The video illustrates the raw energy required to give "hand" to something durable. Modifications in the physical world are energetically costly. Repeatability usually limits degrees of freedom. Uncooperative physical world.

Flat and reflective. Antireflective coatings are intrusive and easily damaged. Curved is great -- except that now you reflect (less) at a greater range of angles. Input is no longer linear. Again... uncooperative physical world.

These slabs of polished glass are designed to get out of the way of an infinitely ductile medium to which one can give "mind". Their simplicity is essential to that process.

It's an amusing counterpoise -- reading a critique of "physical discomfort produced by the aggressive edges", and then watching a video of real hand damage. Those hammer blows and their attendant shocks... more relevant would be to discuss how we adapt our hands to our tools, and the sacrifices we make. Books and keyboards and dog leashes and shovels.

-- Alden (email)

Is lack of tactility bad?

How tightly does one hold a phone to produce divet lines in his hand? My glowing rectangle is an iPhone 4 and, although containing non-rounded edges, is superbly comfortable to hold. I agree that current touchscreen technology does not yet match the tactility of reality, but I'm hesitant to fault the technology for that. What it attempts to do it does well. It's not trying to replicate or recreate reality--it's a completely different plane, if you will.

You say that it's "dead flat" as if that is a negative quality. The use of "dead" accomplishes to attach the inherent negative qualities of the word to "flat". Having a screen be flat allows it to do exactly it's purpose: to display anything and everything. If physical buttons are used, they are stuck. Their purpose cannot be changed after the fact. If a developer has an idea for an app that would require the addition of another button, they are unable to implement that idea, because the hardware already exists. Touchscreens allow anything to be shown, and therefore the only limit to what can be displayed and communicated is the resolution of the screen and the resolution of the developer's mind.

I agree that textural tactility is lost with current touchscreens, but is the necessarily a bad thing? What makes texture variation so necessary for the hands? We are used to it because we evolved in a world that had texture, so we have the necessary sensory apparatuses. That doesn't mean, however, that something that doesn't have texture is inferior to something that does. it's just that it's different. iOS is successful in creating a space where ideas can be communicated intuitively and human interaction with computers is understandable. It's successful-- precisely with glowing rectangles.

-- Gray Crawford (email)

The cartoonist Lynda Barry has this great saying: "In the digital age, don't forget to use your digits! Your hands are the original digital devices."

-- Austin Kleon (email)

"I like to make real things and Iove the physicality of making sculpture"

Tiny error - "love" has actually been spelled with a cap "I" rather than a small "l". (Looks exactly the same in a sans-serif font, only shows up when you switch to a serif.)

That was a fine essay. Agree completely with your sentiments: I have always felt that the current iPhone was designed as an objet d'art rather than something to be held in the hand. Nokia has a new smartphone out that appears much more hand-friendly (though I have not held one).

This is not an inconsequential matter: Anecdotal evidence suggests that the iPhone tends to get dropped quite a lot more than, say, an old-style telephone handset. (And the plastic handset suffered a drop with much less damage than a mostly-glass iPhone.)

Why is this so? The classic phone handset was a series of hand-friendly curves, with hardly a straight line to be found. The current iPhone is primarily straight lines, as you have pointed out. (Some enterprising businesspeople have noticed this and offered a solution, or at least a clumsy workaround.)

Part of the reason for all the droppage is also that the classic handset is larger (more 'graspable') than an iPhone. That's probably true, and since no one wants to carry an object the size of a handset in their pocket, making a larger iPhone is not the answer. But that fact merely brings us back to the central issue: That the iPhone is in urgent need of a redesign to make it hand-friendly. Since it cannot be made larger, pains must be taken with details such as the small curves and tactile surfaces that are urgently needed to reform a handsome but ultimately sterile and wrong- headed design.

This all feels like a really bad design habit that Apple has fallen into in recent years. Consider the original iMac, which broke the uninspired (to put it mildly) lockstep march of PC 'box' design with a product that emphasized curves. This was of course strictly for aesthetic purposes, since obviously the iMac was not held in the hand. (Indeed, the one part that WAS held in the hand - the mouse - was, ironically, done quite badly.)

The second iMac design, of the floating monitor and cut-in-half-bowling-ball base, was a worthy follow-up to the original. But after that, all iMacs became boring monolithic slabs.

A similar trajectory was followed by the iPhone, which went from fairly curvy to the slab-in-your-hand design of present.

A return to the original iPhone design, however, would be insufficient for Apple. The original product was curved, yes, but not very thoughtfully so. (All they really did was shave off the hard edges.) Apple is now in a great position to gather anecdotal evidence about how their product is actually used - and held - and what causes their product to elude the grasp of so many hands. Apple can also, at this point (dare I say it?), learn from its competitors. (Especially, again, from Nokia and their new product. which I linked earlier.)

One thing that's evident from the Nokia phone at a glance is that it curves downward, which means it will fit more comfortably into the complementary curve of a human hand. Apple would object to this, noting that this choice means that the phone will not sit flat on a desktop.

The question then is: Is the phone intended to sit on a desk, or be held in a hand most of the time? The answer, I suspect, is obvious. But there's more to it than that. The Philips Sonicare toothbrush is another product designed to be held in the hand, but its maker also realized that making it round would also cause it to roll off any surface it was set down on. Their solution was a round handle, with a subtle but well-placed 'stop' that prevents it from rolling once set down.

There have been many products in recent years that have seen considerable innovation in regards to basic hand- usability. Gillette's high-end Turbo razors have well-placed rubber grips and hardly a straight edge in sight - except for the blades. But even its blades swivel gently to conform to the curves of the face!

Those are the kinds of details Apple must master in order to get the physical aspect of this phone right. I suppose they have, up until now, been concerned largely with their software interface and ecosystem, which perform admirably for the most part. The time has come to reconsider the most basic 'interface' challenge - that of holding it for long periods of time in comfort.

-- Mister Snitch! (email)

The tension is between uncomplicated and universal actions, and the complex of tactile, visual, and haptic cues. Violins make beautiful sounds, but torture their most devoted and talented players (I was amazed, when sitting in a recent concert, to see how many violinists had chafing on their faces where they contacted the violin). A shovel can easily be made more efficient by adding a couple of 90 degree bends in its handle, but few shovels look like that, and most shovelers prefer the straight, easily-stored and transported spade, and protect their hands with gloves, maybe, while plunging the tool into its goal.

Elegance and simplicity survive; perfection is complex, or around the corner. Sculptors are idealists; our tool- making tends, instead, to the pragmatic.

-- manskybook (email)