Human-Interface expert: iPad and other ‘hokey visual facades’ are transitional tech, not the future

“As it happens, designing Future Interfaces For The Future used to be my line of work,” Bret Victor blogs. “I had the opportunity to design with real working prototypes, not green screens and After Effects, so there certainly are some interactions in the [Microsoft visions of the future] video (below) which I’m a little skeptical of, given that I’ve actually tried them and the animators presumably haven’t. But that’s not my problem with the video.

“My problem is the opposite, really — this vision, from an interaction perspective, is not visionary,” Victor writes. “It’s a timid increment from the status quo, and the status quo, from an interaction perspective, is actually rather terrible.”

“This matters, because visions matter. Visions give people a direction and inspire people to act, and a group of inspired people is the most powerful force in the world,” Victor writes. “If you’re a young person setting off to realize a vision, or an old person setting off to fund one, I really want it to be something worthwhile. Something that genuinely improves how we interact.”

Victor writes, “This little rant isn’t going to lay out any grand vision or anything. I just hope to suggest some places to look.”

“Now, take out your favorite Magical And Revolutionary Technology Device [iPad]. Use it for a bit,” Victor writes. “What did you feel? Did it feel glassy? Did it have no connection whatsoever with the task you were performing?”

“I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade,” Victor writes. “Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It’s a Novocaine drip to the wrist. It denies our hands what they do best. And yet, it’s the star player in every Vision Of The Future.”

Victor writes, “To me, claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It’s obviously a transitional technology. And the sooner we transition, the better.”

Tons more – very highly recommended – here.

MacDailyNews Note: Bret Victor held the position of Human-Interface Inventor with a little company called Apple Inc. from August 2007 to- November 2010.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews readers too numerous to mention individually for the heads up.]


    1. Easy… all you have to do is watch Star Trek to see the future…

      1) Voice Command (interactive hands free)
      2) Holodeck (interactive hands on)

      That was simple except for the technical hurdles.

      Currently we have…

      1) Siri – (interactive hands free)
      2) MultiTouch – (interactive hands on)

      So yeah he’s right, but he seemed clueless as to the answer to his own questions.

      1. To be fair… two more…

        Currently we have…

        1) Siri – (interactive hands free)
        2) MultiTouch – (interactive hands on)
        3) Wii (interactive body)
        4) Kinect (interactive body)

  1. While the gist of this article does appeal to logic, I think the main point is somewhat muted. Technology itself is transitory. Moore’s Law and what not…everything changes. Touch is the latest in a long march of technological evolution and revision.

    Yet, I can’t seem to understand why so many in the tech press have come out railing against Microsoft’s visions of the future. Certainly, the general populous looks at these images and videos and is inspired – I know the kids in my science classroom can’t stop talking about them. And this is the point that I think is lost amongst these commenters: these images and videos may not speak about the next generation of UI for human/computer interaction – but they certainly speak to this generation of kids. It get’s them thinking. It’s gets them wondering. As long as we can feed imagination, and generate sparks of any kind in today’s youth – weather it’s from Microsoft, or whomever – I am all for it.

    Of course – that’s easier said than done. No wonder the author had to clarify his position – unable to posit an alternative vision. Perhaps we need to let the future speak for itself.

    1. This article does a rather excellent job of explaining the problem with these BS “vision of the future” videos from Microsoft:

      Putting this “Future Visions” video in public squanders attention that Microsoft could otherwise have focused on its current and imminent new products — like Windows Phone. […]

      I’m not arguing that making concept videos directly leads to a lack of traction in the current market. I’m arguing that making concept videos is a sign of a company that has a lack of institutional focus on the present and near-present. Can you imagine a sports team in the midst of a present-day losing season that makes a video imagining a future championship 10 years out?

      The designs in these concept videos are free from real-world constraints — technical, logical, fiscal. Dealing with constraints is what real design is all about. Institutional attention on the present day — on getting innovative industry-leading products out the door and creating consumer demand for them — requires relentless company-wide focus.

    2. He called it a ‘rant’ and that’s all it really is. He ain’t got a clue, as most of us don’t, where things are going or what’s going to pop out of a bubble down the road. It’s more a matter of his own blindness that he doesn’t take a chance and wonder on.

    3. Technology itself is transitory. Moore’s Law and what not…everything changes.

      But his point is that “visions of the future” always extrapolate from current technology, and that’s why in the end they aren’t good for much.

      He’s got a point. Look at science fiction movies going back decades. According to Sci-Fi movies from the 70’s and 80’s, we should be living in a world of CRT displays. The idea of flat panel displays rarely occurred to these “visionaries”.

      So the idea that the entire world is going to turn in a huge smartphone is just as silly as the 70’s vision of big hair, lycra, and CRTs all over the walls.


    4. The MS videos are like a talking dog. I believe it was Mark Twain who said that everyone would be impressed by a talking dog, but they wouldn’t listen to what it has to say.

      In other words, the videos are impressive and eye catching but I can’t imagine them as predicting a useful future.

      That was the nice thing about Apple’s “Knowledge Navigator” video. Yes, it had some gee whiz technology, but it was clearly a useful way of using the technology.

      Here and there the MS videos showed some interesting ideas (like arrows in the floor lighting up to show you the way) but for the most part they were glitzy without really showing a new way to use technology.

    5. “Yet, I can’t seem to understand why so many in the tech press have come out railing against Microsoft’s visions of the future.”

      Because they are derivative and static. Merely extrapolated present without insight.

      Basically, Microsoft produced a video that says “Look at the future we are promising based on technology we couldn’t implement in the last 10 years and because of our lack of taste and vision see the same technology as today 20 years from now just being on more devices”. It’s indicative of their “Windows Everywhere mindset”.

  2. Disgruntled former employee apparently. Talk to any doctor working with some of the disabled folks and your pictures under glass is doing wonders for those folks along with children as well. So it’s no wonder that he is now a former employee of Apple.

    1. Yea, I kind of have to agree. I’m an industrial designer myself and I heard these arguments in school 20 years ago. The arguments when no where. This guy rants about flat interfaces but offers nothing as an alternative.

      There’s a utility issue he’s not addressing which Steve Jobs addressed very effectively when introducing the iPhone. The bottom 40% of smart phones had keys that couldn’t change, although they could give you tactile feedback. Now, if you could come up with a way to make a physical object change it’s shape in a number of ways then you may be on to something.

  3. Sorry but humans are designed to interact with what is in front of them using sight sound touch in a tactile way. Victor wants to redesign humans to fit his vision and that feels strange. I think a cave man could’ve picked up an iPad and got the hang of it pretty quickly.

      1. Yeah, it’s painfully evident that people read that excerpt on this site and came to their own outraged conclusions instead of reading and grasping the article. I love my iPhone/iPad and I will kill the motherfucker that tries to take them away from me. But to believe that this touch enabled paradigm won’t evolve past “Pictures Under Glass” is idiotic.

  4. Interesting read.
    The future of human-interface will most definitely involve all the human senses, and a combination of interactions, but our most powerful form of man to machine communication may simply be artificial inteligence through natural conversation.
    What do you think Siri?

    Siri: “I would have to agree with your assumption.”

  5. this guy’s problem is his absolutism. looking for that “one true” UI, i guess. but there isn’t any of course. all UI techniques have great possitilities combined with new technology, and sometimes “pictures under glass” will be best. their great advantage is the ability to create visual abstractions of real world whatever – symbols and virtual depictions (from exact to totally stylized) – that you can interact with in complex and creative ways that are impossible in a physical realm – but have real results! this “expert” totally misses that.

    want proof of the PUG UI? give a 4 year old an iPad and just watch.

  6. Its easy to sound Guru like by sounding off some rant about not being able to “feel”…….. what shall I call it now….oh yeah…. “information”. The fact that the iPad allows us to SEE HEAR and TOUCH (through glass) information (and thereby allow you to manipulate it) is incredible and it is …YES…MAGIC!

    The two missing senses this guy is talking about are i) “TOUCH-the-actual-virtual-object” (as opposed to “through glass”) and ii) “SMELL”.

    To do this you either have to have electrodes stuck in your brain OR to wear body suits for touch and smell.

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