Editorial: Keep All the Tools
March 29, 2010
Imagine waving at your television to get its attention, then making another hand motion to select a channel. That TV is coming soon, made by Hitachi using gesture control technology supplied by Canesta, Carlsbad, Calif. Other similarly controlled consumer electronics products are also in the works, and several other gesture-based technology suppliers are looking to break out soon. This new approach to human-machine-interface arrives as innovations in existing methods continue to expand, such as the growing use of multi-touch technologies.
Earlier this year, Sensory Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., rolled out a low-cost, natural language speech chip that makes it easier to design voice-controlled products. Immersion Corp., San Jose, Calif., launched a new generation of high-definition haptic (touch feedback) effects. About the same time, Synaptics, Santa Clara, Calif., unveiled a collaborative mobile phone concept called Fuse, which employs multimodal solutions, including multi-touch capacitive sensing, haptic feedback, and 3D graphics, along with force, grip, and proximity sensing.
So these are exciting times for designers seeking to enhance the user experience in the control of machines and devices. While such enthusiasm for the new is justified, it should not supplant the standard assessment of the value proposition-whether the added benefit outweighs the added cost. One should also avoid the temptation to overestimate applicability. Everything has its place.
For example, the gesture-based interface sounds terrific for a large screen application, but it’s hard to imagine its use on a small-screen portable product or for something where precise input is required, such as a medical device.
The familiar touchscreen technologies-capacitive, resistive, acoustic, infrared, etc.- also have distinct feature sets that make them more or less ideal for a specific application. Scale is an obvious issue. An acoustic technology that can transform an entire storefront window into a touch interface may not be optimal for a small device where accuracy is imperative.
Special needs often dictate the method of choice. A retail POS machine may require a screen capable of signature capture. An outdoor kiosk must accept touches from gloved hands. In some outdoor applications such as vending machines and security keypads, vandal resistance may be desirable. ITW ActiveTouch, Buffalo Grove, Ill., developed a rugged touch control technology that utilizes the principle of trapped acoustic resonance and allows the use of a stainless steel interface. You can whack it with a hammer and it will still register a fingertip touch afterward.
The operating environment, too, plays a critical role in the selection of an interface. Years ago I wrote a story about an infrared-based touchscreen designed to be used underwater by trained dolphins.
The user must also be taken into account, both from a cognitive and physical perspective. Operators of medical equipment will be highly trained, which is not the case for operators of foodservice equipment in a fast-food outlet. Designers of home medical equipment must remember that an elderly user might have arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, vision problems, or all of them together.
New technologies need not always supplant the familiar, sometimes they can augment it. United Keys, San Jose, Calif., has put displays onto pushbuttons and keys to provide visual feedback on basic push switches. Immersion Corp. has developed haptic-effect software for rotary devices that can make a digital encoder feel like an old-fashioned mechanical knob.
As with many other technologies, new methods for human-machine interaction should be considered welcome additions to the designer’s toolbox. But they don’t demand tossing out the old standbys. Simple switches still have their place. Innovation should expand options, not diminish them. One can grasp the new without letting go of the old.