The Absence in Kinect

23 Jan

It seems to me that the message Kinect advertisements deliver emphasizes an absence; attention is drawn to how something is missing in the relationship between the human and the technology. It makes the claim that there is no ‘how’ when someone interacts with Kinect.  Indeed, the claim is stronger than this: if the publicity is to be believed, there is no interaction at all. This is because, as the adverts put it, with this technology, ‘You are the Controller’.

Obviously this is simple publicity; advertising does not pretend to be science. Nevertheless, there is much to consider in what is being emphasized in phrases such as this. What is being proposed is that, with Kinect, there is isomorphism between, on the one side, the human and what they want to do, and, on the other, the machine’s ability to understand, grasp, comprehend or, in this case more accurately, to ‘see’ what those intentions are and then respond to them. It is because Kinect can ‘comprehend’ these intentions without any intermediation, no keyboard, mouse-clicks or consul, that the publicity has this odd absence at its heart: it seeks to celebrate the removal of mechanical means for controlling computers.

Whereas once the computer mouse might have been the centre of an advertising campaign, now in a world where the technology can let you be the controller, all those sorts of technologies can go. This future holds less – less technology to get in the way. And thus, so the hype goes, we are allowed to be ‘natural’. All other means of interacting with a computer are, by dint of this phrase, implied to be somehow other than natural. In this view, the keyboard was merely a technological step on a path to this ‘natural’ mode; the computer mouse simply a cute technological aid that, like the keyboard itself, is soon to disappear, to be found in the future only in museums and histories of innovation.

So, what is one to make of the phrase ‘You are the controller’ and relatedly the term ‘natural? The trouble with both is that they are pregnant with numerous meanings and interpretations – it’s not that they are vague; it is that they are too evocative.

For example, the word natural is bound up with what its use implies as unnatural. Given that Kinect does away with a keyboard, one interpretation that goes with this usage could therefore be that people do not ‘naturally’ want to communicate by written words – the primary output of a keyboard. Doing so is an artifice of technology, one might think. Yet one only has to think of linguistics and one of their continual bugbears. As Baron laments in her book Alphabet to Email  linguists are regularly asked to explain to those with little knowledge of their discipline that the written word is not a surrogate for some other human activity that is ordinarily preferred or more ‘natural’. The other activity that is often invoked in these discussions is, of course, the spoken word. Speaking is natural, this vexingly wrong view holds, while writing is a forced necessity when speaking is not practical (see also my own book Texture 2010). As Baron explains, this is completely wrong; writing is a different social act than verbal communication; it is not a replacement or a proxy.

Consequently, when Kinect is said to offer users a more natural form of interaction what is it that is being contrasted? It would appear not to be the creation of text.  Perhaps then, the kind naturalness in question has to do with other tasks. One is sorely tempted to make a pun: Kinect is natural for certain kinds of interaction, when a person wants to a computer to do certain sorts of things, but evidently not for all things – so what then? Just what is the ‘natural domain’ of Kinect? Games? But is natural what comes to mind when one thinks of games? Surely artifice, rule-boundedness, the temporary abandonment of the natural and everyday attitude is what comes to the fore.

Similarly, what is one to make of the phrase ‘You are the controller’? Is a person not a controller when they use a keyboard and mouse? Does an individual somehow relinquish some control when they use these devices? Presumably that is not what is being implied when the phrase ‘you control’ is coined. Alternatively it might be immediacy is being implied: with Kinect one can get the machine to do as one wishes instantly, as quickly as one can move one’s hand: this brings to mind the idea of direct interaction, so beloved by some in HCI.

And then besides these concerns there is the bigger question of what is meant by ‘you’. For it is not the inner self that is being alluded to, assuming that is that there is such a thing. After all, one only needs to recall Turkel’s account of the joy that early programmers felt when they could see how what went on ‘inside their head’ could sometimes, with the right coding, appear to manifest itself externally, on the computer screen. This was certainly her thesis in The Second Self even if she has now recanted. No, what seems to be of concern here is the body; this is what is meant when the phrase you are the controller: for it is what one’s body does that acts as the mechanism to control the system. It’s one’s torso and limbs that do the controlling, not thoughts in the head. But just as this is so, then this also means that the social who, the status of the individual who plays, is therefore not part of the vocabulary of Kinect: bodies are not just thoughtless, they are without status too.

All of these questions highlight then the oddness of the phrase ‘you are the controller’ and relatedly the term ‘natural’. It seems to me that, though they might be odd, one ought not to think that they are therefore wrong; it is more probable that the terms need grounding in rather prosaic particularities. One imagines that what is natural needs to be understood and evoked in references to spaces where a user and their machine can see each other without interfering with other domestic activities, for example, in spaces where it is natural to game, say; one imagines that the phrase ‘you are the controller’ makes sense when one disregards certain aspects of the self, and privileges others.

The bottom line is that even though the interaction that Kinect enables might indeed be immensely appealing and may make users experience a new sense of control and wonder at how easy and ‘natural’ it seems to be, for those in research, ‘just what’ the experience of Kinect is, what it affords and how it can be designed around, needs careful investigation……

to report on this soon..

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