Handheld Devices

Computer Games

Starfighter Generation

Book Review

Corrections or additions?

This article by Douglas Dixon was prepared for the

June 11, 2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Thumbs, Cameras, PDAs — & Are Video Games Good?

by Douglas Dixon

The thumb is coming back to computing, writes Edward

Tenner in his new book "Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of

Body Technology" (Knopf, June, 2003). "In Japan today, there

are so many new data entry devices that young people are called


sedai, the Thumb Generation." Tenner cites the work of one

British researcher who has found that "thumbs around the world

are becoming stronger and more skillful. Some young Japanese are now

even pointing and ringing doorbells with them."

Tenner’s book explores the history and development of technologies

that protect, enhance, and improve the efficiency of our bodies, from

our heads (helmets and eyeglasses) to our toes (sandals and sneakers),

fingers (musical and typewriter keyboards), from our backs (chairs

and recliners) to our eyes (glasses and laser surgery). Tenner’s

epilogue (see article at left) celebrates the resurgence of the

lowly thumb for interaction with digital devices. The thumb now drives

laptops and handheld devices with thumb sticks, thumb pads, and thumb


As humans in the past have adapted to shoes and chairs, and then more

recently to keyboards, our current digital generation is now adapting

to small thumb-based devices for portable communication, reference,

and computing.

Indeed, the next generation has blown past such simple interfaces to

adopt video game controllers, allowing real-time control of complex

actions — steering, jumping, shooting — using simultaneous thumb

and finger actions on a profusion of controls and buttons. Gaming

skills are scorned by some, but a just-published report by researchers

from the University of Rochester claims that they can improve visual

skills (see below).

Beyond walking and sitting and typing, the major theme of our digital

age is helping out our memory by bringing stuff with us to remember

and record information and events. And this of course demands


as we run out of room to put all these gizmos in our pockets, clipped

on the belt, or lugged in a shoulder bag. But at some point, smaller

becomes too small, as we can no longer read the small displays or

fit our fingers on the tiny buttons. In short, we can no longer adapt

as humans to the new technology.

Consumer electronics companies face this problem as they keep


the size of digital still cameras and video camcorders. For example,

Sony’s new miniature digital

camera, the DSC-U20 line, is about the size of four packs of gum (3

1/4 x 1 1/2 x 1 inch). This is not just a toy camera, with 2 mega

pixel resolution, flash, and close-up capabilities (but no zoom), and

standard Memory Stick storage for lots of photos. But while obviously

this size camera can fit in a pocket, the question becomes whether

it’s getting just too small to be useful, especially with its tiny

LCD display (less than 7/8 by 5/8 inch).

It turns out, however, that this camera design still works. While

you can’t see sharp detail in the display, you certainly still can

frame your shot. Also, buttons are not a big issue with a digital

camera; all you need is the one (reasonably sized) button to click

the pictures. Yes, there are a few more buttons to control the menus

when needed, but the major challenge to using them is good eyesight

and viewing conditions to read the menu display. Overall, teeny tiny

still works in a digital camera.

This is not true with camcorders, however, as digital miniaturization

seems to have hit a limit. In camcorder design, the overall size is

limited by the form factor of the tape cassette, which then limits

the design of the tape transport. The physical design challenge then

is to find room on the case for all the components and interfaces:

the lens on the front, the adjustable eyepiece on the back, the


LCD display on one side, the tape compartment on the other, not to

mention the battery, and connectors for power, video, and computers.

Of course, camcorders also need lots more controls, including


buttons for power, play/record modes, zoom, exposure, and focus, all

of which must be relatively easy to access. And you need a second

set of buttons for playback, plus miscellaneous other controls to

access the other fancy features and modes.

The DV format for digital video camcorders provides a nice balance

of size and function. The DV cassette format is about half the size of

and thinner than the analog 8 mm cassette. This permits small


designs that weigh less than one pound, even with a 2 1/2 inch LCD

display. But Sony wanted even smaller, and therefore introduced the

MICROMV digital cassette, smaller and thinner than half a DV cassette.

This is smaller than a matchbox, or about the size of two quarters

side by side (www.sony.com/micromv).

But it seems that Sony went too far, or rather too small, with its

first generation of MICROMV camcorders. The DCR-IP5, introduced in

January, 2002, weighed only 12 oz, with battery, and measured just

1 7/8 x 4 x 3 1/8 inches. The new DCR-IP55, introduced seven months

later actually is a bit larger than the previous model, at 15 oz


battery, and 2 3/8 x 2 7/8 x 5 1/8 inches. Users found the first


just too small and too clumsy to use.

To deal with the profusion of tiny buttons, camcorder manufacturers

have moved to touch screen menu interfaces on the LCD display. In

this way, common functions such as the VCR play controls can be


as buttons overlaid on the video screen, and more obscure options

can be provided in the nested menus. The result is an end to button

bloat, replacing dedicated physical buttons with virtual controls,

and leaving more room for the more important buttons that need to

be controlled by your fingers.

Top Of Page
Handheld Devices

Unlike consumer electronics devices, handheld computing

devices tend to shrink to become all display, and the space for


is minimized. Yes, laptops have keyboards, but the control interface

is through the touch pad and/or pointing stick (as popularized by

the IBM ThinkPad), with fingers and thumbs moving the cursor and


the touchpad buttons. And the latest development in laptops is tablet

PCs, all screen or with detachable screen, controlled by touch-screen

and pen interfaces.

Meanwhile, PDA (personal digital assistant) designs are dominated

by the display, with a handful (as it were) of dedicated buttons for

scrolling and common applications. The original Palm PDAs also


a dedicated writing area, but this also is being subsumed into the

touch-screen display in some newer models. Sony then added a jog dial

control to provide for one-handed navigation in its Palm-based CLIE


These devices still are limited for fast data entry. Users either

must adapt their writing style to the device’s recognition


or peck away with a stylus on an on-screen keyboard (still in QWERTY

layout). On the other hand, cell phones and pager/communicators are

focused on the buttons, with a smaller display and the numeric phone

keypad or an alphabetic keypad for messaging. Phone users adapt to

these devices by becoming practiced at one-handed dialing, and


text messaging users adopt a two-thumbed technique for faster typing.

But then these devices start to converge, as phones acquire PDA


and larger displays, or PDAs acquire more buttons for faster data

entry. The Kyocera 7135 is a flip-top phone design that happens to

have a Palm inside, and therefore has a full Palm color display, plus

the dedicated buttons and writing area above the keypad. On the PDA

side, Sony now offers CLIE flip models with a full QWERTY keyboard

squeezed into the PDA form factor. Palm’s new Tungsten model provides

dedicated buttons on the bottom third of the device and then slides

open to reveal the traditional Palm writing area. Several of these

models include QWERTY keyboard buttons on the exterior, so they can

be used without a stylus. The Tungsten W then combines wireless


supporting E-mail access and phone use (with earpiece).

Top Of Page
Computer Games

The dexterity challenge with these digital cameras and

handheld devices is driven by the miniaturization, providing enough

room for the thumb or finger to press on the desired button without

accidentally mashing several others by accident. With accurate thumbs,

you can learn to peck out non-trivial messages and even use modifier

keys for capitalization and symbols. But these accomplishments pale

against the skills of the video game generation, using their


controllers to direct movement and actions with split-second accuracy.

Today’s video game controllers have gone far beyond the original


joystick, with its single red action button. In the old days, you

could only use the stick to indicate a general direction (up, down,

left, right, and sometimes diagonal) and press the button to initiate

an action (typically shooting at something). These were mass-produced

devices designed to take a heavy beating and therefore did not provide

much subtle control.

The simple joystick was replaced by the stick with directional pads

and more buttons. Systems such as the Super Nintendo used a rounder

and flatter design that was intended to be held and operated with

both hands. The left thumb operated a directional button, typically

implemented as an analog tilt sensor that could provide more subtle

graduations of direction and speed. The right thumb had access to

four buttons to choose and control actions. And the index fingers

wrapped around the front of the control to access two additional


With these multi-button designs, players could perform multiple


actions, moving and jumping and attacking at the same time, and even

switching between different tools. Of course, the ultimate control

was reserved to gamers on PCs, who could map each key of the keyboard

to dedicated actions


Video game controllers continued to evolve, gaining even more buttons

and moving toward more of a boomerang or bat-wing design style. The

controller for the Microsoft Xbox system now includes three thumb

pads: an eight-way directional pad for the left thumb and both left

and right analog thumb sticks. It also has a set of six


multicolored analog buttons high along the right side (two for less

common uses), two shoulder trigger buttons for the index fingers,

plus dedicated start and back buttons. Plenty to keep the fingers

busy (www.xbox.com/system/Xbox+Game+Controller.htm).

The Xbox controller also is rather plump, to make room for two slots

for memory cards and other peripherals, plus motors for a built-in

"rumble" feature. Some gamers found the original controller

too bulky, and preferred the smaller Japanese model. Microsoft also

released the newer smaller Xbox Controller S with a revised button

layout, since some users just could not stretch their fingers and

thumbs so easily, and kept finding themselves pressing buttons


Now gamers can pound away, with Microsoft’s promise of "comfort,

pinpoint accuracy, and total control."

Top Of Page
Starfighter Generation

All this manual dexterity training may well pay off,

and not just for virtual car theft and future high-tech jobs in


video games.

Researchers at the University of Rochester reported in the journal

Nature last month that action video games can significantly improve

visual skills. Avid game players can monitor more objects in their

visual field (up to 30 percent more objects) and do so more quickly

than nonplayers. Even as few as 10 hours of game playing was enough

to significantly increase a person’s visual awareness. The researchers

suggest that "action game playing might be a useful tool to


visually impaired patients or to train soldiers for combat." (See

story below.)

This was the premise of the 1984 movie "The Last Starfighter,"

in which Robert Preston played an alien recruiter

who seeded Earth with video games to find candidates for the Star

League, to "defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan


Of course, the best of our planet turned out to be some kid dreaming

of escaping the Starlite Starbrite trailer park, who beat the game

and was blasted off to the planet Rylos to save the universe. See

what an itchy trigger finger can do for you.

The future of human-computer interfaces may well be much like that

shown in the 2002 movie "Minority Report," in which Tom

Cruise’s character used

a virtual reality visual interface to search a database of visual

imagery that floated in the air before him.

Our modern life requires this ability to track and comprehend multiple

sources to the periphery of our visual field, and to switch attention

rapidly to manage simultaneous inputs and tasks.

Whether driving on Route 1 while monitoring your GPS travel routing

display and talking on a cell phone, or watching television while


on homework and instant messaging with several friends, our lives

demand multi-tasking — both attention and action. In the absence

of thought or voice input, the resurgent thumb will press forward

as the interface between us "wetware" humans and our digital


— Douglas Dixon


Top Of Page
Book Review

In "Our Own Devices: the Past and Future of Body

Technology," Edward Tenner puts a fascinating spin on the


development of everyday objects and human adaptations to the


— from the various designs of baby bottles feeding to best mimic

nursing to the development of sandals, designed to protect the feet,

and sneakers, designed both for speed and comfort.

The book is not a quick read, but more to be consumed in moderate

servings. You will come away armed with uncommon, even uncanny, facts

about common human objects, and perhaps a desire to pay more attention

to the design of your shoes and chairs, although Tenner does not


strong conclusions or recommendations about best practices in using

these technologies in today’s society. Oddly, Tenner provides


few illustrations to help show the evolution and details of the


he discusses. More diagrams like the great tree chart of helmet


through the ages would have been helpful, for example, in illustrating

the "seven and only seven styles of shoe."

While not Tenner’s focus, you also can read the book as homage to

the human propensity for tinkering, as individual inventors and users

of these devices just couldn’t stop messing around to try to improve

them. In many cases, these people worked in the face of strong


from the medical community and society at large (think of the past

evils of nursing, flat feet, and sneakers). Yet we’re clearly better

off because they could tinker and experiment with new ideas and design


Tenner calls for "a return to the collaboration between user and

maker that marked so many of the great innovations," citing 1980s

studies that found up to 77 percent of innovations in high-tech


were initiated by users. The importance of tinkering also is the


theme of Edward Felton, a computer science professor at Princeton

University, who is concerned about attempts to legally regulate the

use of technology. His Freedom to Tinker site discusses "your

freedom to understand, discuss, repair, and modify the technological

devices you own" (www.freedom-to-tinker.com).

— Douglas Dixon

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