With digital media/content expanding exponentially, and new delivery devices evolving faster than pre-Cambrian life forms, it is a truism that digital technology reigns supreme. Although it sounds like modern heresy, in some applications, digital technology is less potent than an older, less hip, predecessor technology: analog.
The trend towards digital hegemony is unquestionable. Yet there is a simple fact often overlooked: we are not digital.
Human beings are analog creatures, who interact with our environment through means honed over millennia of evolution (For you youngsters - digital technology is a fairly recent development). We interact with technology via sight, sound and touch to access and control the glut of information increasingly inherent in our world.
Unfortunately, the devices that deliver this content do not reflect this fact. Granted, we have cool displays with superb graphics and GUIs, GPS to tell us exactly where we are and where we need to go, and all this packaged in tiny form factors. But when it gets down to extracting what we want - when we want it - we end up using the lowliest device of digital technology: the switch.
Think about your new cell phone - it may have PIM that syncs with your PC, a camera, a color screen and rumble/vibrator for gaming, calculator, GPS, an Internet Browser, and oh, by the way, a phone. In all likelihood, the way you control your phone is by pushing a digital switch (a switch is "digital" because it only has two states: off and on, or 0 and 1).
Humans have evolved a fine capacity for motor control over the last few million years, but when it comes down to controlling the latest digital technology, often the only options are a two-state, digital push-button. Even your new phone's cool mini-joystick is nothing more than a four-way switch with a stick on it. What a wasted opportunity! Wouldn't it make sense to use our inborn ability to actually move things proportionally? Why not use all the shades of grey the digital switch misses?
This is not a complete surprise, particularly for those of us old enough to have lived through the old days of analog electronics. Video arcade games of old always used large analog joysticks, because it was well understood - this gave us the best gaming experience. As digital technology dominated the scene, analog control became increasingly awkward to include in product designs, and the switch was easy. (Remember how difficult it was to learn how to play the Mattel Football handheld circa 1978? And who didn't have a sore thumb after20 minutes of mashing those four digital switches?)
Now, as more and more data is available, it has become increasingly urgent to find a way to move all that data on/off the display screen with greater facility. If you factor in small screens like those found on cell phones - the need approaches crisis. We are seeing some innovations in this regard, such as the scroll wheel on a mouse or a Blackberry. It's a little thing, but how many of you would be willing to give the wheel up? Variable control is important, and improving control in the environment of digital world may be the critical missing link in the successful evolution of many of these devices.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Product designers, software developers, and the repetitive stress cries of the multitudes have given impetus to new types of analog controls that will help the situation. Start-ups and tech-stalwarts are providing clever solutions well-suited to the small form-factors and price constraints of today's devices, including capacitive, Hall-effect, stress gauge, and resistive technologies. All of these analog-type control technologies offer the more intuitive proportional control so well suited to the fine-motor control evolution has endowed us with. However, there are practical technical considerations to each that make them more or less suited to a particular application. Perhaps the most promising of these new technologies is the oldest; resistive technology.
Resistive technology is well known to us in the many knobs and sliders based on potentiometers. These devices have advantages, particularly in today's wireless world, including low power consumption, small form factors, reliability, flexible design parameters and the low risk associated with a proven technology. Although "old" by technological standards, many companies are breathing new life into analog technology by finding innovative ways of employing it in joysticks, navigation discs, touchpads, etc.
Think back to the cell phone example above: How many of the applications could benefit from improved analog control? 3D gaming with a miniature analog joystick? Need to navigate a GPS map? A proportional nav-disc provides just the right "variable touch." Need to rewind that MP3, or fast-forward that DVD movie? Analog control rules! Even tasks as basic as scrolling through a long list in your address book would benefit from an intuitive control that lets you direct the speed.
ID and product-design influencers are feeling the pressure to continually improve their products, to make them stand above the digital frenzy. Evolving these products to the humans that use them only makes sense, as simplicity and effectiveness of control are critical gating issues in all products we use. Analog proportional control is a key element in that process. Those products that adapt to this reality may win Darwin's ultimate prize: they will survive.