Saturday 22 October 2011

Groping and Touching

Our father, Tom Brindle, was phone hacking before it was cool. 2004’s round of birthdays saw each brother stunned by his uncharacteristic generosity as mobile after swanky mobile was torn free of its wrapping. What we didn’t know then is that Bells’s first words down the wire were a summoning spell*, and that the ghosts of every conversation ever transmitted over the US telephone network still circulate through its byways. With a raft of occult paraphernalia, plus Captain Crunch whistles and several thick volumes of default PIN numbers, our father intercepted our voicemail and browsed our texts. Intelligence gleaned would then appear in a home-printed tabloid newspaper offering such scoops as

Stuttering son spurned by phone-line sexpot

Black sheep of the family confesses homosexual desires

So you can understand if I am sometimes nervous about phones. That goes double one that’s ‘smart’ (what if it learns to open doors?). But the world drives us whichever way it will and now I am the terrified owner of a not-quite-brand-new HTC Wildfire S. What intrigues me, despite my trepidation, is the leaf the Android developers have taken from the book of videogames (Biblical apocrypha removed in favour of Deuteronomy over fears it would have a bad influence on teenagers).

We often speak of how a game feels. This apparently fuzzy measure breaks down into audiovisual minutae – screen shake, motion blur, vibration, sound design, echoes – as well as ludic elements like momentum, movement speed, and friction. A gun in a first person shooter feels beefy by virtue of well-chosen effects which work in collaboration with its position in mechanics as a weak or powerful weapon. Doom 2’s super shotgun – which FPS Tribe called "the birth of satisfaction in the FPS genre" – is a good example of these elements working together; I remember a PC Gamer feature remarking that its reload sounded like a calm pronouncement of “okay – next.” It is often such small or idiosyncratic details that capture players’ affections, and skilled developers know that incidental assets can significantly affect the player’s experience of the system they craft.

Android does the same. When you flip between desktop segments, you drag your finger horizontally across the screen as if to physically move the background, but this can be a very quick gesture; lift your finger halfway through and the shifting screen maintains its momentum. When the frame settles on the next screen, however it bounces slightly. It the frame was travelling left, or the background, by extension, right, the icons go slightly further to the right than they need to and wobble back leftwards. Likewise, poking around at my housemate’s Samsung phone, I found the contacts list acts as if it has frictionless momentum, sliding along with a vigorous stroke until my finger puts a stop to it. Toolbars spring up from the bottom or slide down from the top, and the phone throbs in response to my touch.

This facsimile of physics lends a material weight to immaterial. In exists in part to meet the demands of the new and still not completely intuitive gestural vocabulary which smartphones and pads have introduced. Users learning a new lexicon – sliding-drag (‘unlock drag?’), pinch-zoom, finger-hold to the desktop computer’s double-click and drag – need all the help they can get, and they are well-acquainted with features like momentum from their physical lives. In his talk 'Truth in Game Design' Jonathan Blow suggests a similar strategy: the approximation in design of physical, mathematical truths as a way of capturing the player by tapping into their intuitive expectations. Vibration, meanwhile, has been around for ages as a simple alert mechanism, but, as the designers of rumbling controllers found a decade ago, haptic feedback allows an extra level of easily understood communication with the user. That extra channel is all the more important when the device is to be used on the move or the street amidst all manner of other distractions.

But these features do more than humbly imitate in C the great work of our Lord the almighty Programmer of all things – they do something more blasphemous. Because many of them are cosmetic and contribute only to ‘feel’, they serve to create the illusion of a little world that’s under the user’s control. They do this not only by allowing that control to be exerted, but by giving its object a ‘worldiness’ that makes its manipulation more compelling. The appearance of physicality is especially important to a device which trades so firmly in the physical from the start – which is held in the hands and prodded with the fingers.

It should not be surprising that one of the most popular mobile games turned out to be a physics-based artillery game. There’s a modern analogue to the satisfying “chunk, thunk” of Doom 2’s shotgun in the “creaaak...(twang) weee!” of Angry Birds’ catapult. Elaborate arrangements of wood, stone and glass capitalise on the heretic joy of manipulating a fully functional physical plane in your palm – and confirmation bias means we remember those moments where we felt like the genius planner of a NATO shock and awe campaign than those where we left three snickering pigs alive. A flick of your finger and cities fall. I am the destroyer of worlds.

Of course these devices really do give us unprecedented access to information and to each other’s time.  It’s appropriate that they should give the impression of containing a world, because in some sense they do. A professional riding the London Overground ignores the press of bodies around her to lose herself in a screen that connects her to a press of minds (of course this image would not work on the Tube). It’s a strange inversion whereby the seemingly inward-facing action of turning away from those immediately beside you becomes instead an outward-facing courtship with the planet outside the metal capsule of the bus. As smartphones strive to imitate life, perhaps that inversion will soon extend to haptic interfaces, and allow lecherous commuters to grope willing fetishists remotely. It's a great wide world in there.

*see Morrison, Grant – ‘Doom Patrol’ #19-63, 1989-1992

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