Alex Steer

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Haptic things and the post-signal world

417 words | ~2 min

haptic: of or relating to touch.

The last few years have seen a shift towards the haptic in personal computer interface design. For several decades now the main paradigm has been visual-spatial, based on the metaphor of seeing things in space and being able to control their movement and arrangement. Of course, the mouse involved using touch to direct movement, but was not really fully haptic because of the difference in location between the hand performing the action (below your eyeline) and the action performed (on the screen, in your eyeline). The new paradigm is visual-spatial-haptic, to coin a really awkward term. Touch-screen devices create the illusion of direct manipulation. Maybe it isn't even an illusion: you touch the screen, and changes take place beneath your fingers. This is not a new conversation.

But the idea of the haptic, as opposed to the purely visual-spatial, seems to be emerging now in media. Looking at (and cherry-picking, admittedly) some of this year's most awarded communications campaigns - think Nike Chalkbot, Tropicana Sun, KitKat deckchairs, that weird Nokia arrow-on-a-crane thing - the idea of the touchable world as a locus of interest seems to be on the rise.* The best communications, we seem to say, are those which touch the haptic, material world and change it, not those which just configure pixels on a screen or the vibrations of a speaker.

Perhaps the 'post-digital world' we're all beginning to think about now is actually a 'post-signal' world. Perhaps the last fifty or so years under the dispensations of television, radio and personal computers have been about deriving value and entertainment from the projection of electronic signals into our field of attention. Under those dispensations, visual-spatial interfaces with superficial manual manipulation (mice, buttons, switches, dials) was enough. Perhaps the next cycle of our relationship to communications technology will be about deriving value from the physical world and the things in it, with the insistence that interfaces extend our haptic reach (not just our sight and hearing) in ways that feel physically genuine. As telecommunications reach the post-scarcity phase, maybe we'll want our remote activities to feel more like our interactions with the things around us. And maybe the convergence of physical interaction and telecommunication will help us value both more. I hope so.

* I pinched most of these examples from @sarahewalker, who knows and thinks about them far better than I.

# Alex Steer (29/07/2010)