Why the world needs to rethink touchscreen computing

Okay, close your eyes and keep them closed as you visualize this: it’s the spring of 2016 in New York City and Samsung has just released a new phone dubbed the Galaxy S8.  The media calls it the Galaxy Saint because of its pure design and flawless finish but it’s technically known as the S8.

An urbane well dressed woman walks out of a cab and swiftly walks to the corner.  As she waits for traffic to pass she glances at her svelte new Galaxy S8 and flicks through a few emails.

Bill Braun from Microsoft, ugh, when is he going to realize that we don’t have the budget for this?

Cherry Wilford is a 41 year old CIO at a burgeoning start-up located in the bustling downtown Manhattan district colloquially known as “Fye Dye“.

The five year old financial analytics firm just completed an auspicious round of Series C financing from venture capital giant Sequoia Capital and is tracking to climb the ranks in this years INC 500 report.

Wilford is proud to be on a team of technology savants who have an uncanny fervor for both their clients and employees.   Her last job at a monolithic waste management company in Jersey was an abomination compared with her current job.  Here, Wilford virtually has carte blanche rule over the tech infrastructure and is revered as an expert by her peers.

Suddenly a notification steals her thoughts.

Wilford’s agile thumbs deftly closes it, hovers over another email and then quickly taps out a reply to her Chief Security Officer, Mark Ryans.

The pedestrian walk sign changes to a looping (and mildly hypnotic) animation of a walking man but as Wilford steps out to cross, a rambunctious ambulance barrels down the road just missing her expensive new high heels.

Perturbed she mumbles:

Geez, next time trying using your sirens asshole

Pedestrians cross the street as a large amorphous mass.  Teenagers flaunting Beats by Dre headphones dart in and out of foot traffic while elderly people try to avoid being trampled in the stampede.

Wilford adroitly balances her Galaxy S8 in her left hand, clutches her Goyard purse under her right arm and presses through the crowd without ever lifting her head.

She can text and walk like a pro.

As she rounds the corner her thumbs furiously dance over the screen, tapping, touching and tagging almost every app on her phone.

This has been a productive walk.

In just two blocks, Wilford scheduled a meeting with Mark Ryans, scheduled a reminder to return her heels to DSW and scheduled a Friday appointment at the spa to reward herself for a demanding week.

She walks into the ornate lobby of the historic skyscraper where her office sits perched on the 45th floor.  The byzantine edifice is an estimable feat of modern engineering.

It’s the perfect confluence of aesthetics and technology and costs enough to make even the most dispassionate accountants gasp.

The entire structure gently sways under strong gusts and is completely powered by solar energy.

Obviously the cost of leasing this location is exorbitant but since one of the founders is golfing buddies with the investment group that owns the building, her company got a discount so deep that it was impossible to ignore.

As she waits for the elevator to arrive a tweet chirps on the screen from one of her followers but tapping the reply icon yields no visible change.

What the fuck? What’s going on with this stupid phone!?

The elevator arrives and as the doors open her boss, the founder and COO of her firm smiles and says “What do you think about the Bloomberg presser?  Can we tackle it?”

Flummoxed by his question, she frenetically shakes her phone and desperately tries to make it respond.

Ben , I’m sorry my phone is on the fritz; what Bloomberg thing?

Ben has a rarefied gravitas and affability about him that can put even the most skittish employee at rest.  At 6 foot 5 with broad shoulders and nearly perfect posture he could be both a football player and a male model.  And although his size is formidable he’s so soft spoken and humble that you feel like the entire world stops when he talks to you.

“I was referring to the tweet I sent you a moment ago – but it looks like you’ve got you hands full.  No rush check it out when you get to your desk”

Ben walks out the elevator as Cherry takes the long ride up to her office.

The phone is now completely frozen and there’s nothing she can do.  With no physical buttons she can’t press and hold to reset and since the battery is integrated she can’t remove it.  She has no choice but to wait for the phone to respond or take it back to T-mobile.

After several seconds, the elevator eases to a stop and opens with a soft “whoosh” that reminds Cherry of the enterprise doors on Star Trek.

She glides through the aisle past a few interns and sits down in her corner office overlooking the Jersey shore.  She can’t complain as her office affords spectacular, almost ethereal, views of the city and serves as a testimony of all her hard work.

Since her phone is frozen she pulls out her tablet but much to her dismay it doesn’t respond to her gestures either.

Graaahhh..

She grunts as she plants her face in her palms.

I hate touchscreens!

Why touchscreens aren’t the answer

Rewind to present day 2014.

Touchscreens are everywhere but are still fickle.

Just like Cherry Wilford’s futuristic smartphone our smartphones periodically lock up.  It doesn’t matter that we’ve removed the battery, uninstalled extraneous apps and upgraded to the latest firmware – smartphones feel like dumbphones when you can’t tap the phone icon to make a call.

On the one hand touchscreens have enabled us to do things we could have only dreamed about decades ago.  They allow us to directly interact with the elements we see on the screen and almost completely obviate the need for keyboards at ATMs and kiosks.

In addition, people who espouse touchscreens acclaim the technology for ushering in the mobile era of smaller, lighter more portable gadgets. And since the index finger has almost completely supplanted the stylus, people no longer need to use special pens to interact with the screen.

The world seems to be ecstatic about touchscreens.  Companies produce and costumers consume but I can’t stop telling myself that there has to be a better answer.

In my mind the challenge of touchscreen technology is the fact that you have to touch the screen.  Think about it:

Touching the screen has a motley of problems.

For one, you have the fortuitous effect of smudging up the screen.

Do you have a chicken wing in your hand? Drop and dry before texting.

Grease and grime often gunk up the screen degrading the appearance of the phone.  Some people don’t mind smeared screens; however, in reality it isn’t hygenic and makes your phone disgustingly slippery.

But that’s not it, even if you’re careful to touch with dry fingers you still need an uncanny measure of dexterity that I find positively annoying.

On my computer keyboard, I can type at 100 words per minute without looking at the keys, but on my Galaxy S4, it doesn’t matter if my phone is in portrait or landscape mode, I have to do the following:

  • Find the key I want to press
  • Hunt for the shift button
  • Locate punctuation marks by clicking the symbol key and scrolling through pages of useless symbols
  • Make sure I press only one key at a time
  • Watch my finger as I type rather than the screen I’m typing in

But seriously guys: this is arrant nonsense; who want’s to really communicate this way?

The other issue with touchscreens is that you can’t type with one hand and visibility sucks in bright light.

Yes, I know the technology is improving and many companies like HTC are making ardent strides to improve visibility in direct sunlight; however, I want to propound a new solution.

A possible answer

Think about how most humans interact with the world.

We see it first don’t we?  Our sensory perception is fine tuned to process the visual stimuli around us.

Why not design a phone that uses your eye movements as gestures?

Before you laugh my idea away as you visualize men in business suits blinking rapidly to “double-tap” apps think about the potential.

There are already nascent technologies from Samsung such as Smart Pause and apps such as the Wink Reader making it easy to flip through books and snap photos with simple eye gestures.

One problem I see is that the human eye is never completely at rest.  It’s constantly jittering, skipping and making minuscule movements even when focused on a single point.  This exacerbates the programmers efforts to design a system to detect and capture all these micro-movements.

The Galaxy S4 was an intrepid attempt to inaugurate a new era of human-computer interaction; however, it never really caught on.  To be candid, part of the reason for this is that people have an innate trepidation regarding exotic technologies they don’t understand.

Using your eyes to shuffle and close apps is about as cool as it is creepy.

Also, what happens when you look away from your screen to avoid walking into street sign?  Is that going to unwittingly close that email you were “eye-typing”?

The Bottom Line

I get it, problems abound but still it could be a viable answer.

Ultimately, in my utopia I would type out emails by simply saying the message in my mind.  Thinking my emails would be exhilarating but could also yield abasing results especially if a maverick thought flickered through my head.

No no, I didn’t mean to send you that.  That was for my wife. Oh damn.

The bottom line is that the advent of touchscreens has become my bane.

That’s the bottom line.

I can’t get away from them and therefore I have to use them and although new technologies such as eye gestures are emerging they’re still too embryonic to be considered anything more than a gimmick.

What do you think of touchscreens?  Surely you’ve shared the vexation of Cherry Wilford right?  Do you think eye gestures will become mainstream?

Let me know in the comments!

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