Hard Light: Bringing Better Pong

Some years from now, you will be trying to download hip music. Let us imagine that, by such and such a time, Led Zeppelin will have been resurrected via AI simulation. So you’re maneuvering your online self down the Zeppelin aisle, avoiding all the blaring ads for canned hovercrafts, when suddenly a pair of disembodied buttocks breaks away from your computer display. Trailing promises that the first month is free, they hover, wobbling, and begin to rhythmically batter at your forehead. A bead of sweat falls from the butt cleavage and gets in your eye. It burns.

A few weeks ago, a team at the University of Tokyo cooked up the latest thing (still nameless) in holograms. You can touch them. You can reach out and grab a hacky-sack made of nothing but light, and you’ll feel every little bead under the canvas. I am not even shitting you. (And because of the world network’s specialties, this technology will be used to try and sell you porn. Every. Single. Day.)

It’s not revolutionary science, really – nobody’s invented a new kind of light. The technology involves ordinary holograms, some sensors to track where your hands are, and a way of generating ultra-low-frequency acoustic waves. When you bring your hands up to the hologram, you feel an appropriate sense of pressure on your skin, like the pulsing sensation you feel when you move your hand near a loud subwoofer. This ultrasound system runs concurrently with the visuals, like the way a television broadcast is comprised of audio and video signals.

By the time the gimmick wears off, they’ll be using it for everything, if the technology becomes cheap enough. And until somebody figures out how to throw digital signals directly into your brain, it’ll be among the most defining aspects of human-computer interaction in history. Not because it can make weird floating stuff pop into existence and rub up against you, but because it lets your computer disappear.

Here’s the thing. As you get closer to a computer’s real nature, it becomes more arcane and abstract. The actual ones and zeroes getting pushed around are hardly user-friendly. A good piece of software is almost always a kind of mask for your PC to wear – something to disguise its basic computer-ness, and make it more like (for instance) a photo album (Picasa), or a jukebox (iTunes). The ultimate computer interface is one that you don’t notice.

Ideally, one day we’ll be manipulating displays and data with our hands rather than keyboards and mice, in a procedure that’s continuous with the natural world itself. Think about the Nintendo Wii’s “Wiimote” controller, which is revolutionary because it’s not really a controller. Rather, it’s a way to extend the possibilities of digital gaming into analog space, into the real world that gamers really inhabit. Or even the mouse, probably the single greatest step in user-interface history, and its incalculable addition of the user’s desk space to the computer’s file system. The hard light from Tokyo is something like that.

We’re on the verge of a great shift in computing perspective, and that’s not even counting the implications for porno. Our interface devices won’t necessarily have to look like mice anymore, or keyboards, or anything in particular. Feel like playing a boxing game? Your computer can project you a pair of boxing gloves. Want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome? Try a weightless keyboard that automatically grows and twists to compensate for your typing style.

In the early eighties, future-minded architects planned fully computerized houses: a Commodore 64 unit embedded in the kitchen wall to display recipes, another in the bathroom to report on the weather while you wash your hands. The idea’s no less silly with modern terminals; for many users, the ideal computer isn’t shaped like a computer. Society might turn toward truly ubiquitous computing, but not by making every surface a screen. Rather, we would need to undo the difference between what’s a computer and what’s not. So hold out your fingers for this one.

Martin Hazelbower

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