I’m generally upbeat about progress, particularly when it involves smartphones, but I confess that this New Scientist story, headlined “Knuckles and Nails Get Invite to the Touchscreen Party,” is sending some unpleasant electrical pulses through my nervous system. Seems there’s this Carnegie Mellon computer scientist named Chris Harrison who has “built a prototype smartphone that can distinguish between touches from the knuckle, fingertip and even fingernail.” The phone “listens for the acoustic and vibrational differences between the three different types of touch. A fingertip could select an object while a knuckle tap could work like the right-click on a computer mouse and open up a submenu, for example.”
“For example”: That sounds ominous, doesn’t it?
Harrison thinks that our current crop of digital devices woefully underutilize our digits. “A big problem with touchscreens right now is that they are very simplistic, relative to the capability of our hands,” he says. “We could do so much more.” He has started a company to commercialize the technology, and he’s in talks with smartphone manufacturers to incorporate his rap-and-tap sensor into future models.
I’m sure Harrison is right, physiologywise. Fingers are wonderful inventions, and we should make the most of them. But then I start to think of the sound of all those little fingernail taps and knuckle raps, and my thoughts grow dark. Have you ever sat — on a plane, say — next to one of those guys who like to tap their fingers incessantly? Oh God. The human brain, perversely, loves to amplify those irritating little taps until they take on the quality of a tympani crescendo. Now imagine that everywhere you go you encounter a touchscreen percussion section. No sooner do you enter a public place — or, hell, your own home — than your ears are pricked by all manner of random rhythmical patterns, which your brain, snapping to attention, dutifully amplifies. Ambient tinnitus! Everywhere! Nonstop!
I can hear the future. It sounds something like this: