Touchscreens 'a small step' in innovation

Tom Cruise in Minority Report

With so much focus placed on smartphones, touch and gesture control and their evolution, what will be the next big development in how people use digital devices?

The way we use digital devices has become big news.

People spend so much time looking at a screen each day that every new update to any major operating system is greeted with a near hysteria about whether you should or shouldn't upgrade.

Wake up, check Twitter and Facebook on the phone, eat breakfast, check train times online, travel to work reading from a screen, log on to a computer, work, go home, eat, put the TV on and check email, sleep.

This has created a large public discussion about design changes that often just shifts things along, quite literally, by a few millimetres at a time.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionSumi Das discovers why Google's design policy 'cannot be consistent'

Who can honestly say they understood the word skeuomorphism until a couple of months ago?

"The public discourse about new UIs [user interfaces] at the moment is at the level of celebrity gossip," says John Underkoffler, chief scientist of Oblong Industries, who has advised on technology in films such as Minority Report and Iron Man.

"What they might add tomorrow morning is not really a big deal. Most of the debates happening now cannot be sorted out without history. We'll be able to look back and find out what the truth is.

"My bet is the truth will be wherever more capability will be, wherever there is more delirious power in the hands of actual people."

Then where will this new capability come from?

Most of the design ideas offered by sci-fi blockbusters on the big screen still seem a long way off.

Minority Report - with gesture response, transparent screens and true augmented reality - was released more than 10 years ago and is still brought up as a discussion point of what could be done, much to the disgust of some.

But it did take the mouse nearly 30 years after its invention to become widely used.

'No interface'

One big suggestion gaining traction is the notion of the invisible interface. The idea is that the best design will make all technology move so far into the background that it's not even noticed and just works without even being thought about.

This concept has been around since the 1990s but what this is pushing, from examples so far, is the idea that everything is so intuitive to use that it isn't even noticed.

Microsoft's flat design for the Windows Phone has been lauded by critics as the first step on this journey away from intrusive interfaces. It is an idea that is now being used in Apple's new iOS 7.

Going even further, ideas like "the best interface is no interface" will, according to a Samsung designer, create a future without digital interfaces at all.

This means, in practice, digital programming would still be there but the need to intervene in long processes would fade away - a world beyond point and clicking, swiping and pressing and going through menu options.

But it is choice that designers are keen to offer.

"Touch is just a small step," says Mr Underkoffler.

"In reality, there are a lot more steps involved than that.

"The big story is plurality. It's not that touch has supplanted a lot of existing UI, it's taken a little bit of it and moved it forwards. You still use a keyboard to type, a touchscreen is not better than that.

"There will be touch when that's appropriate but there will also be gesture. What will be really new is the opportunity to give people a UI to use different input devices as appropriate."

What this would mean is no one "right" answer but an opportunity for every device to work together in every way the person using the device wants to use it - whether that be keyboard, mouse, touch, gesture or voice, with no one thing killing off another.

At the moment though, the touchscreen is still interface design's focus.

"One of the main problems with touchscreens is everything is effectively poking at pictures through a glass screen - you're incredibly deprived in terms of touch," says Timo Arnall, of design studio Berg.

"Screens do have a part to play, they are versatile and we are attracted to them but it's not enough.

"We have to be able to account for our hands, our bodies and our other senses in a digital world."

Inventor of the web Sir Tim Berners-Lee has talked extensively about the idea of the "internet of things" and this seems to be affecting the way UI design is moving from expecting a single device, like a phone, to do everything and towards a world of many devices, just like the physical world.

Image caption Some designers believe that people will come to see digital devices in a similar way to utensils

"In the real world, you're not limited to one device," says Mr Underkoffler.

"You can pick up a pen, a pencil or a paintbrush. The drawer in your kitchen doesn't just have a spoon. We have people fighting about UI now about whether it's going to be a spoon or a fork.

"In reality, you're going to have both and a lot more utensils besides."

Instead of one device that does everything, the future could be that people are left with the choice of which device - and which interface - to use for each circumstance.

But with people spending so much time in front of screens and now comfortable with the idea of touch, how likely are they to really move back to physical devices as the way into the digital world?

"I'm sensing a backlash against screens at the moment," says Mr Arnall.

"Given that it has become so culturally omnipresent, you can look at any bus stop and 80% of people are staring at a screen. There has to be a cultural backlash against that.

"Over the next couple of years, that is what will happen."

More on this story