Physical interfaces

When I was working on a travel-related start-up idea last year, I had a call with a senior executive from a major web travel company. What she said really surprised me – that the majority of America still decides on where to go based on the following technique: when they see a compelling destination in a magazine, they rip out the corresponding page and put it in a folder. Then, when it comes time to book travel, they look through that folder and decide where they are going to go. Whether it’s true or not, it does remind one of the obvious fact: that people are using the physical interface of paper / a magazine in order to mark information for later retrieval. Other examples include bookmarking, dog-earing a page, etc.

A friend recently showed me a demo of a product idea that he’s been playing with that brings a physical world interface to the iPhone via its touch / gesture capabilities. What truly struck me during the demo was not how useful the feature was in itself, but rather the value of the action going from being an abstract action (i.e. mouse motion / click translated into a visual representation on the monitor) to a physical action again – something that you touch and interact with ( you can’t feel the texture – yet!).

Many have talked about the advantage of a physical book over the many e-versions that we have seen over the years. And of course, simply mimicking the act of turning a page with a gesture on the iPhone screen does not dramatically change the user experience of reading. However, gestures on the iPhone (and other similar touch interfaces) do get one step closer to the physical world that we are used to and for certain applications, that will be good enough for success.

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