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.