Commentary

Brian Eno Was Right: The Future Won't Be Moved By Mouse Alone

  • by January 21, 2008
Back in the early '90s, when WIRED magazine was still in its infancy, each issue contained spread after spread of profound quotes -- "mind grenades," as they later became known -- from what were then considered "digital futurists."  One such futurist was the legendary musician/composer Brian Eno, who stated, "The problem with computers is, there is not enough Africa in them." 

What he went on to explain was that if your index finger was the extent to which you "interact" with the digital future (via the mouse), then there was something profoundly wrong. The basic human need and desire for bodily movement was primal -- the stuff of African rhythm and dance -- and to him, the connection from index finger to brain to World Wide Web fell just a bit too short to consider it an optimal access to the "future."

Yet, here we are some 15 years later, finally able to see the possibilities of what touch-screen video and voice-activated interfaces can do.  No longer the "Flintstonian" experience they once were, touch screens have come a long way in just the last few years.  All you needed to prove it was a stroll across the CES floor a few weeks back to sense that we are on the verge of a potential paradigm shift in graphical user interface (GUI) development: from sitting tethered to a desk by a mouse and keyboard, to walking at a white board monitor, cellular earpiece in, moving "minority report-like" windows across a virtual desktop.  Welcome to the age of full-body-motion computing.

We are only beginning to see the ancillary benefits for the elderly and physically challenged that Nintendo's WII platform is unleashing -- an indication that freeing the act of computing from a sitting to standing and moving position opens a world of new health-related advantages.  Imagine being liberated from sitting for hours on end, changing to an office environment where one can physically stand and walk at a whiteboard-style monitor with voice activation, using your hands instead of your index finger to move windows around on a macro desktop -- arranging and rearranging your content as you move through your day?

Brian Eno was right -- and we're only beginning to get a taste of the primal movement he was referring to.   As we continue accelerating the functionality of touchscreen interfaces from iPhones to ATMs to etaxis, one can only wonder how much longer we will have to endure the mouse and keyboard/click-and-drag functionality that has plagued our desktops for years. The Apple iPhone's horizontal interface lets you sweep through CD cover art with the greatest of ease.  Imagine doing that with your hand on a larger screen/larger scale?

Even the latest eTaxi touchscreen interface features a real-time GPS map that nicely places icons for advertisers like Subway, Citibank, Stabucks & WaMU adjacent to the interface, so you simply touch to locate the closest one to your current location.

Just think, by the time our kids graduate from WIIs to the workplace, maybe -- just maybe -- an office the way we think of it will resemble something completely different.  And that $2,000 desk chair with the adjustable lumbar support and extra quiet casters... well, hopefully you'll want to rethink that.
 

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