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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:

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7 Responses to · · · — — — · · ·

  1. Perhaps this will preserve you: silent gestures!

  2. Nick

    It seems as though, depending on which way the interface goes, in the future we’ll be surrounded either by finger-tappers or by spastics. I can’t say I have a strong preference either way.

  3. If you’ve ever seen a girl with long nails texting, then it becomes clear this is needed. There’s some real hand gymnastics that already get applied to today’s UIs.

    One problem solved creates another. Maybe the future holds softer screens — more appropriate to “nail texting”.

  4. Nick

    On the other hand, one of the problems with an interface that responds to fingernail taps differently than fingertip taps is the fact that nail lengths do vary widely. If your nails are long enough, fingertip taps become difficult to accomplish, whereas if you’re a nail biter, nail taps can become problematical. If this UI takes hold, we may have to have a standardization of human fingernail length. Which would be tragic.

  5. Or customisation of touch. They have it with mouse and touch pads.

    we may have to have a standardization of human fingernail length. Which would be tragic.

    Yes, it would. In HCI, I think it’s always the job of the computer to be built for the human, not the other way around. We’re going that way with touch, voice, kinect, brain wave (e.t.c.) interfaces.

    Or maybe we won’t have to touch the screen at all:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHA0GzfTkf0

  6. Hi Nick,
    Can you please fix your RSS post feed? It’s been broken for some time. Thanks, natasha

  7. Nick

    As previously announced, Rough Type’s RSS feed changed a few months ago. You can activate the new feed by clicking on the RSS-Posts link in the right column of this page.