The End Of Buttons: The New Gesture-Control Era

Aug 19, 2013
Originally published on August 19, 2013 4:58 pm

Last week, BlackBerry put up a for-sale sign after many years of decline. The once revolutionary BlackBerry was the first smartphone addiction for so many Americans — you were connected all the time! — and even when iPhone ushered in a slimmer, sleeker, faster era, a few holdouts (many on Capitol Hill) continued to stubbornly keep a BlackBerry in their pockets.

But looking back, it's clear BlackBerry devices began to lose consumers more than half a decade ago. That's when the iPhone's touch screen became the user interface de rigueur and the Blackberry, with its keyboard and buttons, became almost instantly outdated. Hemispheres Magazine takes note:

"Computers, which started as banks of switches, sprouted keyboards (banks of buttons with letters on them). We used buttons to select television shows to watch and pushed buttons to order soft drinks from vending machines. Then came the BlackBerry, which bristled with buttons.

"And then, with the iPhone, everything changed. As a descendant of both the computer and the phone, Apple's superproduct had a big button at the bottom, plus a switch at the top and some tiny little controls. You could even argue that the entire screen is a button of sorts. The point, though, is that we didn't need to rely on just buttons anymore; we could tap, drag and pinch to operate the phone. The moment Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld 2007 and brandished his nifty little device, the button was on notice. Fingers, with touchscreens, became the new buttons."

So it goes with technology. The switch gave way to the button, the button gave way to a touch screen, and soon, touching screens may seem old-school: Gesture and voice control are the "waves" of the future.

The newest smartphones are abandoning both physical and on-screen buttons in favor of gestures. "[S]crolling, swiping, tapping, pinching, flicking — are becoming the dominant form of the smartphone user interface," writes Rani Molla for technology site GigaOM.

As with so much behavior change ushered in by technology, the change happens before we take wider notice. But in cars, those physical buttons have been disappearing; gaming turned to wave commands with Xbox Kinect years ago; and button-cluttered remote controls are giving way to smartphone controls. Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 8, is flat and without button icons to click. Google Glass, the revolutionary spectacle-computer, is largely controlled with voice commands. And with each new phone, like the Moto X, the range of gesture commands to interface with it is increasing.

This creates challenges for user interface designers, who still have a ways to go to understand which gesture commands are likely to be both precise and natural enough for wide user adoption. Reviews for Leap Motion, a new device that turns gestures into digital commands, have been mixed. But the technological shift is afoot. Already, buttons seem passe.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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CORNISH: These days, there's not much good news for BlackBerry, the company that revolutionized the smartphone market in the early 2000s. It's now up for sale after years of decline. But as the BlackBerry phone goes out of use, we're losing something else, a familiar interaction between you and your machines.

NPR's Elise Hu joins us now to talk about the shift. And, Elise, really, what's the big deal? I mean, I feel bad for the company, but what's going away if BlackBerry folds?

ELISE HU, BYLINE: You may not be thinking about it, but it's pressing buttons. The mini-keyboard is one of the things that made BlackBerry so attractive to millions of users when it first came out. And then when the iPhone came out in 2007, it sort of marked the beginning of the end for the button.

Tablets today, they use touch screens. We also see the shift with the touch-screen-powered Windows 8, which is the new Microsoft operating system. You see fewer buttons in cars today; gaming consoles, like the Xbox Kinect, that uses gesture control. And we've talked a lot about Google Glass. That computing device that people wear on their faces, that is largely voice-controlled.

CORNISH: So has touch already kind of won the race to replace buttons, or is there other technology out there that could be on the way?

HU: There are more technologies on the way. Gestures, motions like scrolling, swiping and pinching, these things you're going to be able to do in the air; they're becoming the main form of user interaction in terms of the direction we're going forward. But voice and facial commands are starting to follow.

CORNISH: Here's where I sound old-fashioned. I miss pressing buttons, right? I mean, we used to call it the CrackBerry for a reason.

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HU: And that is one of the reasons we have BlackBerry holdouts. Our habits don't change that easily. And our infatuation with buttons has been around for more than a century. I mean, if you think about it, it was buttons that first replaced switches on the earliest computers and buttons that replaced the dial on telephones. We're still a long way from a completely buttonless era.

CORNISH: You know, Elise, in a way, it feels like something old is new again. I mean, this gesture technology takes me back to The Clapper, those cheesy commercials from the '80s, right?

HU: That was one of the original gesture-controlled devices, actually. And yeah, looking back, it was at least a decade or two ahead of its time.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Elise Hu. Thank you so much.

HU: Thank you.

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