Last week, I made my way through the archived All Things Digital interviews of Steve Jobs over the past decade. There was nothing particularly new to learn from these in terms of technology (since they were all in the past), but it was nonetheless an interesting glimpse into the strategy of Apple over time, since we now know what they did vs. what was said on stage.
But Jobs’ comment on the then recently unveiled iPad did stand out to me in particular in his last appearance at All Things Digital in 2011. Jobs and Apple received some criticism for the term “magical” when describing the iPad. Sure, one could debate the degree to which the new tablet was “revolutionary,” but calling the device “magical” was going to far for even Apple’s standards for embellishment. Right?
In the interview at All Things Digital (aka All Things D), Walt Mossberg asked Jobs to explain why he used the term magical to describe the device. Jobs responded by seeming to earnestly believe that magical was exactly the word he wanted to use to describe the iPad (and Apple generally does not choose its marketing messages lightly). The uniqueness of the iPad was that it almost removed the layer of abstraction that a traditional keyboard and mouse (or tablet stylus) put in between the user and the content. You could literally touch the application you were trying to use. It was a “magical” experience.
Now, count me skeptical on how this was any different from the iPhone’s similar touchscreen interface. But the point about removing layers of interface abstraction to give users a more “pure” experience in interacting with content did ring true. And the resonance of the idea resurfaced when I was watching the epically long (3.5 hours) keynote at Quakecon 2012 by legendary game designer John Carmack. In the keynote, Carmack waxed rhapsodical on the developments in Virtual Reality and how user interface hardware will become the greatest benefit to improving games in the future.
Carmack’s explanation for how a game console controller was inferior to a mouse and keyboard was especially interesting. For although it is easy to argue that a mouse and keyboard can allow for far more precise control than a game controller (with analog joysticks and buttons), the reason why it is so much more precise was not entirely clear. Carmack explained that when using a game controller, you must press the joystick in one direction and integrate over time to move a magnitude in that vector. If you use a mouse, however, the magnitude of the vector is controlled by how far you actually move the mouse.
The key point is that the mouse is only one degree removed from natural movement (moving your hand on a surface to control what you see on the screen) while the game controller is two degrees removed (1. moving the joystick in a direction and 2. integrating the movement over time). Carmack argued that virtual reality’s potential to again shorten the distance between natural movement and the user interface is central to improving the gaming experience, much more so than simply improving the realistic look of game graphics.
Jobs’ comment on “magical” interfaces and Carmack’s vision for shortening the number of degrees of separation between natural movement and user interfaces both point to a future where the way we interact with technology is less about the bells and whistles of the technology itself (gigahertz, terabytes, pixels per inch, etc) and more about erasing the delineation between natural movement and the technology used to make it happen. “Advanced” technology soon becomes “invisible” technology, if done right according to Jobs’ and Carmack’s respective visions.
But the pioneer of this idea wasn’t involved with either consumer electronics or video games at all. Arthur C. Clarke, world-renowned author of a wide variety of science fiction books, quipped the following as one of the three “laws” of predicting the future:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
While the irony of designing technological solutions beyond comprehension would certainly not have been lost on either Jobs or Carmack (how can you understand something so advanced you aren’t supposed to be able to understand it?) the challenge is clear. The future of technological innovation will be moved forward most effectively by those advances that bring us closer to a real-life interaction in ways so invisible that the technology itself seems more “magic” than science.