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,
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.
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).
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
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."
All this manual dexterity training may well pay off,
and not just for virtual car theft and future high-tech jobs in
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
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
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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