Old interfaces die hard

One thing bothers me about Bill Gates’s assertion that touch interfaces will be all the rage over the next few years. 

Let’s start at the beginning. Gestural and touch interfaces are absolutely nothing new. Here’s some of Bruce Tognazzini’s concept film Starfire, made at Sun in 1992. (Quite amazing just how much great stuff there is in here, dress code aside).

Not a giant leap from Starfire to reach Microsoft Surface.

Honestly, Surface gets attention mostly because it looks great. Really great. It’s elegant beyond anything Microsoft have ever done, and has that futuristic appeal that causes lazy journalists to spawn lazy phrases like ‘the Minority Report interface’. However, as any interaction designer will tell you, these kinds of interfaces simply aren’t as successful as they should be.

First, tactile response, or lack thereof. Example: a button has a satisfying ‘click’ when you depress it. A brake pedal resists the harder you push it. The right key fits snugly into the lock. A touch-based or gestural interface doesn’t do this, because there’s no direct feedback. The iPhone keyboard, while a remarkable achievement, is a long way from perfection. Fingers obscure the view, and there’s no feel for where one button ends and another begins. So in reality, it owes much of its success to its excellent autocorrection. For SMSs, it works beautifully, but have you ever tried typing in a tricky URL? It’d be quicker to type it in Morse Code.

Second, waving your arms around is seriously hard work. Play some Wii Sports, or conduct an orchestra for an hour and you’ll agree. Interfaces like Surface and Wii simply require far too much effort to be usable for long periods. The Minority Report interface needs grand, full-scale movement. Sure, you could downscale it, but haven’t we done that already with the trackpad?

Subtle, well-considered gestural interfaces will become more prominent, but I really do think the mouse and the keyboard will be our predominant input devices for years yet. They’re simple, cheap, reliable, require minimal effort and can be used in a number of environments. Eventually, sure, they’ll die out. I don’t know what will replace them (and if I did, I’d be rich), but I’ll stick my neck out and say it won’t be the surfaces of giant LCD coffee tables.