Posted by: Rich Sherkin | March 10, 2012

Touch-Screens and The Enterprise (the spaceship not the corporate one)

You would think that something from the past would never trump something from the future but it’s happening.  I’m referring of course to the sudden planetary embrace touch screen interfaces.  There has been a huge escalation in their use since the discovery that humans can’t live without tablet computers (read: iPad).   The touch interface is indeed a good one but should it be universal?  Is it really better?  Are buttons really obsolete?

For our discussion we’ll look at two starship pilots;  Ensign Hikaru Sulu of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701 and Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher of the later model NCC-1701C.  Each pilot sat, week after week, in front of a complex array of controls used for navigation, maneuvering and weapons control.  The big difference between these interface consoles, and indeed the rest of the technology on each ships respective bridge, is that the earlier ship used tactile buttons, knobs and controls (and those cool floppy discs) where the newer ship used a touch-screen interface.

But which interface is superior?

Before you rush out and say “oh well with a touch-screen you can reprogram each display a multitude of times so that each control station can serve a variety of purposes.”.  Yes that’s true but with mapping the same can be said for the tactile controls.  So lets not bicker about flexibility.  Let’s focus on something more important.  Functionality.

The benefits of buttons never dawned on me until the mid-1990s.  At that time everyone was making very cool leaps and bounds in the field on tiny little touch-screen displays and they were finding their way into everything.  For me it was the chance to get a touch-screen control for the new home theatre I was building.  Sure the interface was more expensive but look how cool it was.  Then the salesman talked me out of it.  “How are you going to feel where the controls are in the dark?” he asked.  I had never thought of it.  Like many people most of my remote controlling is done through the tactile feedback I get from the buttons.  I didn’t want to have to stare at a bright screen just to find the volume control.  I ended up buying the regular remote and was happy for it.  Score one for buttons.

Now with the iPad (I hesitate to say tablet computing any more because let’s face it – Apple owns this self-created market) every application is controlled via a touch-screen interface.  Buttons, sliders and annoying little knobs appear on the screen for you to play with.  Sometimes the things are so close together you can’t help but hit two at once.  Sometimes a dangling finger can even inadvertently hit a switch just because you relaxed your wrist when it got tired.  Fire photon torpedo.  Oops!

This occurred to me when I was running sound effects for a play and I accidentally triggered the wrong effect because my pinky wasn’t falling quite in line with his brothers as I turned my body.  It was then that I thought that a box with 4 rows of  4 buttons each would be a lot easier to work in the dark than this flat panelled fiend.  Oh sure it gets the job done but is it better?

I’ll just bet Sulu had way more fun pushing all those flashing buttons than Wesley did sliding his greasy fingers all over the flat-screen controls.   Now I wonder, did the Enterprise have janitors come in and Windex off the fingerprints at the end of each duty shift?

Personally, I like buttons.

Sulu’s Raised Helm – Through Feeling the Buttons, Sulu Can Safely Look Into His Scanner.


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