July 3, 2013

Touching the Future

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 5

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By Nathan Snelgrove

As far as I’m concerned, Iron Man is the epitome of pop culture’s interpretation of wearable technology. Tony Stark is fighting for control of the suit he’s encased in, but the machine he’s wearing might have more control than he does.

Stark has J.A.R.V.I.S. and an impressive bodysuit, but most of the series’ humor—and tension—is derived from his technology’s unwillingness to cooperate with him. If there’s any lesson to take away from it, it’s that if technology is going to succeed, it has to enable a human feeling of control.

One of the principle successes of iOS is its immediacy. When you touch the home screen and drag your finger across it, there’s no lag. As the advertising itself claims, iPhones and iPads feel magical because they’re instant. They respond to touch without hesitation, creating a working paradigm of user control.

That’s why I’m really excited about iOS 7. Regardless of the candy icons, what the new OS offers is a stronger feeling of place and control. By reducing the operating system to a series of translucent layers, Apple is enhancing both how the products feel and my sense of control as a user.

With an iPhone, the power of touch is central to the user experience. If I swipe to check items off my todo list in Clear or flick up to archive my email in Triage, there’s a visceral sense of power and control there that I simply don’t have with any other digital technology today. Swiping something feels more innately human than clicking it with a mouse.

That being said, the control I have over my iPhone is an illusion: I’m still madly swiping on a piece of glass. But I don’t think the wearable technology we’re developing today is necessarily the solution.

Google Glass is the obvious example. This is a technology that doesn’t operate within the same paradigms of user control as a touchscreen. It relies on voice commands, which is both its strongest selling point and its biggest downfall.

If I’ve learned anything from using Google Voice Search and Siri, it’s that voice reconigition technology isn’t ready to be the sole way we interact with devices. It fails too often, and that failure breaks the illusion of user control. What if we told Glass to take a picture and it started shooting a video because it misheard us?

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