"Touch is terribly important to us - that's why there are DON'T TOUCH signs in museums, because everyone wants to touch the sculptures- so when we start to do these three-dimensional things with data, we're acknowledging a very deep human need. It's not out of step with digital, it's part of it."
With the first graphic user interfaces, people began to think of the space behind the screen as some sort of foreign land, a different place, a cyber-space which you interacted with through the keyboard, but which was separate from our physical reality. The acronym IRL ('in real life') was used from very early on in the web as a way of distinguishing between those two worlds. That metaphor was very powerful and it stayed with us for a very long time.
However, physical interfaces such as touch-screens, 3D printing and augmented reality are changing the way we perceive the digital space: data is increasingly becoming part of the real-experience world. We are building a new breed of devices that do not limit users to finger movements and visual/auditory feedback, but instead utilise our spatial and sensory abilities, so we can interact with data in the same way as we interact with our natural environment. Remember Tom Cruise seamlessly moving and manipulating windows, icons and images with his gestures in futurist dystopia Minority Report? That technology is already here. Developed by Pranav Mistry at the MIT Media Lab, 'SixthSense' is a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information. It projects visual information enabling surfaces, walls and physical objects around us to be used as interfaces, while a camera recognizes and tracks user's hand gestures and physical objects. The movements are interpreted into gestures that act as interaction instructions for the projected application interfaces.
So what happens when we stop thinking of the cyber space as separate from our personal space?(tech? sci-fi?) novelist Nick Harkaway wonders if we need a new metaphor about what data is if the digital world turns out to be something we can touch and embrace.
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