This iPad Interface Prefers "Real" Tools To Digital Ones

Here's skeuomorphism at its most unintuitive.

For a long time, iOS was criticized for its skeuomorphic interface—artifices like simulated green felt poker tables, wood grain bookshelves, and leather stitching trim on the screen. But now that Jony Ive oversees both software and hardware design, iOS has gutted this ornamental content that one ex-Apple employee labeled "visual masturbation."

But what if you really invested in skeuomorphism, all the way down to the core gestures you use to interact with an iPad?

That’s the idea behind TouchTools, a concept from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) assistant professor Chris Harrison and the Future Interfaces Group. Its premise: Humans already use tools to manipulate the world around them, so why don’t they use tools to manipulate their touchscreens?

Rather than tap or slide your fingers, TouchTools asks you to mime the use of objects against the screen. Want to take a screengrab? Position your fingers as if you're holding a camera, and a camera will appear in your hands. Want to erase content? Position your hand as if its holding an eraser, then wipe your screen clean. Watch the idea play out in this video.

The technology lets you summon objects at will. It’s technical wizardry, but is it good interface design? I’m not so convinced.

"We can take advantage of people’s familiarity with real-world tools to facilitate intuitive and precise digital interaction," the team argues in the video. Fair enough, but even if the iPad isn’t a conventional tool as we know it, people aren't exactly getting lost in the interface. Even babies new to the iPad rip through apps without a problem.

Which of these approaches sounds better to you: Pinch-to-zoom, or scraping your knuckles across glass to mime a magnifying glass? Just who do CMU researchers think we are? Is the world beyond Pittsburgh a wasteland of rusted hammers and collapsed barns? Did a JJ Abrams script suck the electricity from the Earth? Are we as a society really that accustomed to using conventional tools? Seriously, I cut and paste text on my iPhone every day. When is the last time I picked up a real pair of scissors? (Christmas Eve.)

CMU’s concept, admittedly, looks cute. But looks can be deceiving. This interface is both a form of romanticism—nostalgia for a time ruled by physical tools rather than digital ones—and a form of academic elitism, in which professors talk down to some imaginary audience that they don’t believe is smart enough to use an iPad without banging a rock against it.

Read more here.

[Hat tip: Engadget]

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  • Kelsey Higham

    My first instinct too was to dismiss the demo as impractical, but that misses the whole point of the exercise. The whole point is to brainstorm ways to broaden our methods of interaction.

    The ideas shown in this demo may be pointless, but there's a lot of merit to the idea of triggering an action based on the physical arrangement of several fingers. We can make a lot of distinguishable shapes with 3 to 10 fingers, and modifying those shapes is a very fast way to interact with something.

    Keyboard shortcuts don't obsolete the mouse, and gestures don't obsolete direct manipulation.

  • Gosselin Mathieu

    strongly disagree. Maybe the familiarity argument doesn't hold up, but the variety of gesture for quick use is a great one. Maybe indeed the zooming isn't the most compelling case. But as a concept I think it's interesting and probably at its infancy which means it might sound stupid at first but i'm sure if we keep digging something great can come out of. The second argument for familiarity isn't so stupid either. But in any case user will have to be educated or try a number of things to do things he want to. In fact i believe the future of user interface will have a lot more variety in the amount of gestures we use. Using a variety of touch gestures to perform different task without having to tap on icons can already dramatically improve the speed of manipulation for and educated audience.