Thursday, February 02, 2006

Poetry In Motion: Kinesthetics

Celebrating kinesthetics -- design beyond form

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, January 28, 1998 -- [Image]
"What is beauty?" This one's stumped 'em since
Plato's day. We're tempted to think it's something
external, to be viewed or listened to as an outsider.
Some say it's skin deep, but I say that the appreciation
of beauty can go right through to our muscles.

The esthetic I'm referring to is about experience and
motion, about the human muscle interacting with an object
when we flip a switch, turn a knob, or pedal a bicycle.
Often referred to by designers as "kinesthetics," it is
ultimately the kind of pleasure we experience through
playing an instrument, though it can be felt in the most
simple of activities, like lighting a match or winding a
watch. It's in the subtle and overlooked moments in
everyday life that the designer can make a difference.

In consumer electronics design there's been a severe lack
of attention to kinesthetics, with the answer to many
interface problems being a distillation that resulted in
the ubiquitous small, black button, or worse, the
membrane keypad. (Fortunately, computer keyboard
designers include a distinctive "click" and springy
resistance to the keys so that even in the fraction of
the second it takes to type a single character, one gets
the satisfaction of physically feeling like the key is
touched completely and accurately.) The traditional Bell
telephone offered the satisfaction of slamming the
telephone receiver down on the base after an angry phone
call and feeling the plastic collide, followed by the
echo of the ringer letting out a little murmur. Now, the
blip of pressing the "talk" button on a cordless doesn't
quite do the same thing.

When I control my stereo via remote control, the
sensation of pressing the "volume up" button doesn't feel
as related to the action of jacking up the volume as does
the twist of the wrist when I turn the knob. A car today
could easily be controlled by a couple of buttons or even
a touchpad, a la 007, but when making the big motion of
turning the steering wheel we more fully engage our
bodies in the activity of driving.

Knocking the whole realm of electronic products for a
lack of mechanical poetics isn't exactly fair. Some CE
designers have come up with a few subtleties that stick
out in my mind. For example, there's an elegant
kinesthetic to the way the Bose Acoustimass speakers
rotate in the hands, offering just enough resistance to
make the experience satisfying while maintaining the
grace of the gliding motion of one surface on top of the
other. The Sony Sports Walkman is really fun to open and
close, letting out little clicks when parts lock in
tightly, and letting the user feel the cushioning force
of the rubber gaskets. And Bang & Olufsen have taken it a
step further by letting the gesture of waving a hand in
front of a CD player be the force that opens the console
doors. [Meaningful contributions also abound in the
high-end audio community -- for instance, the giant knobs
on an Audible Illusions preamp. -- Ed.]

Much of the lack of engagement of today's products has to
do with a lack of cooperation between engineers and
designers, where the techies on a given project focus
only on efficiency and function, while the designers are
relegated to making just a discrete shell. In the best of
all worlds, product planners would be more openminded
about having both engineers and designers involved in the
early stages of product development to allow the
subtleties of kinesthetics in design to shine through.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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