All Things Considered over at NPR just ran a piece called The Touchy-Feely Future Of Technology. I suggest you read/listen to it because it's a great overview of the history, and a glance to the future of touch computing. However, I'd like to spend my time here calling out a few points that got only passing mention in the piece.
Music & Technology: Friends With Benefits
In the interview, Bill Buxton (principle researcher at Microsoft and touch computing pioneer) calls out his background as a musician as being integral to his success as a technologist. Those of you in the technology profession, if you haven't noticed it yet, take a look around you and see how many of your colleagues are musicians. Now, see if the same thing holds true in the finance department or HR. I think there's a reason for this - apart from the possible exception of unamplified vocalists, musicians are people who have intimate relationships with technology as an intermediary to expression and experience (this will be important later in this post).
For me, the transition from music to technology was a natural one. The thought processes are the same, but the syntax is different. I lust after instruments the same way I lust after new gadgets or machines. The common element is that these technologies all function as an interface to a transcendant experience; I can translate my mental activities into physical actions, and the technology amplifies them into the real world as a unique expression.
Livin' La Vida Star Trek
The NPR piece goes on to point out how science fiction has a habit of predicting the future of technology - from Jules Verne's rockets to Star Trek's tricorders. I think this makes sense because sci-fi writers don't live in vacuums. They are generally identifying technology vectors in their own time and triangulating to a future state based on where those vectors point. It's not surprising that they're fairly accurate.
Buxton himself points out the long ramp-up to technology breakthroughs (his book is titled "The Long Nose Of Innovation"). He began work on touch computing back in 1975. At that point, touch computing remained firmly rooted in science fiction, but its seeds had been sown in fertile scientific soil. From there, you see a sort of pas de deux of development where science fiction and science fact converge on what we see as technology you can purchase at any Target store today. I view science fiction as equal parts harbinger and muse.
There Are No Cursor Keys On Books
Later in the piece, Sherry Turkle (director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self) states that touch technology fulfills a childhood fantasy "of their body being connected to the world," to which I say, "Blah, blah, horseshit, blah..." No offense, Ms. Turkle. It's not the illusion of some Harry Potter fantasy that has made touch so successful... The reason it's so successful is because of the reason I stated above - that the technology serves as a successful intermediary to new expression and experience. Touch is the most immediate and appropriate technology for some existing (say, reading a book or manipulating a map) and some completely new experiences (check out all the touch-based musical instruments - you can start here).
I'm still using a keyboard to write this blog post because it is the most immediate and appropriate intermediary for me to create the experience of you reading it. However, it won't be long before speech technology matures to the point that I can dictate my blog posts faster than I can type them (and, honestly, it's the editing that lags at this point) and then my hands will be free to gesture while I blog. Maybe the vocalists will have the upper hand at that point...
As we continue to develop new modes of interaction with our machines, we will continue to develop new types of expression and new types of experience. I, for one, am glad I'm along for the ride.