A sage once said, "A person has control over nothing, only varying degrees of influence over things." All right, so I said it, but I think that it's true, whether we're talking about the course of one's life or about one's interaction with machines. Anyone who has had the experience of hydroplaning in a car realizes that a steering wheel, brakes, and an accelerator do not add up to absolute control.
Readers brave enough to have subjected themselves to my mutterings over the years know that I have many times reviewed, reported on, and opined about the joysticks, mixing surfaces, and other devices commonly referred to as controllers. (Maybe we should call them influencers. Maybe not.) Well, here I am, on that subject again-as I surely will be in the future-because all the digital gewgaws in the world don't amount to a hill of silicon without a facile means of accessing their power.
Currently, the techniques of control (a word I'll use because it is the most common term for the concept and it's two letters shorter than influence) are in an interesting transitional phase. While software and hardware devices continue to quickly grow in sophistication and complexity, methods of controlling them are huffing and puffing to keep up-and not making it.
Take the current crop of control surfaces and digital mixers. They have lots of knobs, sliders, and buttons-things that proved to be well-suited for controlling machines long before electricity-yet many of these devices still leave us wallowing in a morass of menu-mining, masking-tape strips, and scribbled scraps of paper. Although they offer superior gestural control, these surfaces plainly don't provide enough information about the state of things.
With an assignable control surface, it's easy to become confused about what a control is doing at any given time. High-end, large-format, programmable mixing consoles often feature "soft scribble strips" that identify what a fader or control is doing. Cost and real estate make that kind of display prohibitive for hardware sold to mortals; in fact, even the consoles that have it can usually display only eight characters or so per fader.
Knobs, faders, and buttons are great for varying parameter values but aren't so good for navigating through menus. Neither are keyboards and mice, in my opinion. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of constant mousing and clicking to get things done, and so is my ulnar nerve.
So what would be better, and will we ever see it? Let's look at the two problems I mentioned and the technologies that I think can help.
First, information display. Flat-screen monitors are becoming increasingly available at relatively affordable prices. This is a good direction to go in, and I hope (and think) that these will continue to get larger, thinner, and cheaper. When they do, it will be possible for your display to be almost any large surface, such as a tabletop. I think that people can deal with seeing large amounts of information if it's not all tiny and crowded together.
Next we add touch capability to those monitors. Last year I had the opportunity to review a mixing console that used TFT touchscreens as the primary means of accessing the software, and I was floored by how fast and intuitive it was to use. Navigating down three or four menu levels took practically no effort at all.
Finally, I eagerly await the day that voice control matures. Even systems that recognize only a limited number of commands-say 50 to 100-could make controlling the primary functions of sophisticated systems fast and easy. This is a tough technology to develop, but industries larger than ours have a real need for it, so I think it will happen.
I would truly be delighted to trash my mouse and use my keyboard only for entering text, doing the rest of my control with sliders, knobs, buttons, touchscreens, and my own dulcet tones. Maybe I'm just Dreaming Under the Influence here, but I don't think so.