Twitter, Jaiku, and my touchable lamp

April 11, 2007

It’s so fun to watch all the frenzy around Twitter, Jaiku and other similar more esoteric services that are so hot these days. Everyone is writing up miles-long blog posts trying to sound smart about them and to conceptualize about what they all mean and all that.

I won’t jump on that bandwagon. Why? Because none of them matter. Or rather, that one of them will, but we have no way of telling which one (I’m willing to bet that the “presence winner” hasn’t yet emerged). And since I have no personal stake in any of them, I couldn’t care less about which one exactly it is.

You see, what’s going on in all this herd nerddom is that we/you are busy constructing presence/mood/groupconsciousness stream future at a micro level. It is the outcome of this group behaviour that will determine the winner in the long run. But while it’s fun to be immersed in this, it’s also quite time consuming and gets boring after a while. So I’ll instead take a step back and you can call me back when you’ve determined the winner. In six months, a year or so.

Some people actually ask me what do I think of Twitter and such. I tell them “it’s kinda fun, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.” The two questions I have when analyzing these new phenomena are, “will we remember them in a year’s time or five”, and “would my mom or late grandma understand or care”. For Twitter etc, I’m afraid it’s a negative for both at this time. Can you imagine? There was life before Twitter. And SMS/mobiles. And Internet. And people somehow still got by.

I’ll tell you about my new lamp instead. I find that one much more interesting. (And it’s not LAMP, you nerds. It’s, like, a real lamp. With a bulb and stuff.)

The lamp

So I was looking for a lamp or two for my bedroom. I went through a few shops and designs until I found this one that you see on the picture, that I like and that seems to fit. And I was really happy that I found it and it had a reasonable price too.

But it had an extra bonus that the (very friendly and professional) saleswoman told me about. And I’m grateful she did and you’ll understand why in a second.

This lamp has a touch interface. Not a switch, not a button, but touch. You touch any metal part of the lamp, and it turns on. You touch more, and the intensity changes, until it turns off again with further touches. And then the cycle continues once you touch again. So you can touch any metal part of the lamp and you don’t need to look for a switch.

My jaw dropped right then and there. This was just so cool. Now, I know that you can build devices like this. It’s something about that the human skin and the sweat on it and the minerals in it can conduct electricity. (It doesn’t work when you touch it with a stick or some other “dead” object.) And that when you touch the metal on such device, some smart circuitry in it can detect that the conductiveness of the whole circuit changed and can take action on it. Or something. But it’s the first time that I’ve owned something like that.

True, true, there’s an actual master switch as well that’s a regular switch. And there’s a regular wall mains connection. But I don’t need any of those. I’m overwhelmed with the touch interface.

I think the reason I’m overwhelmed is that it’s because of two reasons. First, it’s incredibly friendly. When I’m sleepy (as it happens when I need to turn on the lamp), I don’t need to waste my energy looking for the microscopic switch in some obscure location behind the lamp. And I don’t need to reconfigure my fingers into the particular position that are required to operate the switch. I can just gently slam my hand against the whole thing and it works. You really can’t get more user-friendly than that.

And secondly, since there’s no switch, the whole design just looks kinda nice. The actual main switch is on the cord and not the lamp itself. And thus the lamp is just a chunk of metal with the glass cover from which the wire emerges. (With wireless electricity, it would be even nicer.) And I’m more and more discovering how I like clean designs.

Now… what’s with the saleswoman? She told me how to operate the touch interface. And she told me that the reason for her to tell me this is that many people didn’t previously figure it out. And they connected their lamps and turned on the main switch, but nothing happened. They didn’t imagine that they need to touch the metal parts of the lamp itself. And they figured the lamp was broken and took it back to the shop, where they were then told about the touch interface.

This absolutely made sense. I bought the lamp myself because I liked the design, not because it had a touch interface – the latter was an added bonus and exceeding my expectations (which is the best thing you can possibly have in a buying experience). But I would have never figured out the touch thing on my own, because the lamp otherwise looked like perfectly normal, with a switch and everything. I’m sure the touch thing was documented in the bundled docs, but come on, who would read the friggin instructions to operate a friggin desk lamp?

But once I realized the touch thing, I was instantly sold. And got proof of an old HCI hypothesis – that the best things and qualitative improvements in life and interfaces are unexpected and counter-intuitive. We don’t know what we want until we see it in front of us. I would never have figured to ask for a lamp with a touch interface, until I saw it.

What’s Twitter to do with this lamp thing? These two just “happened” approximately at the same time to me, over the past few weeks. And the whole Twitter thing gave me a “yeah, shrug” thing, but the lamp thing was a real eye-opener and had more influence on me than all these Twitters and Jaikus combined.

If you’ll excuse me now please. I’ll read your twits later. I have to go touch my lamp now.