Virtual/Tactile: Tomorrow’s Tools and What They Mean to the Photo Industry

Virtual/Tactile: Tomorrow’s Tools and What They Mean to the Photo Industry


There may come a time when the machines don’t need us anymore, when they might become self-generative and self-sustaining, when inventors become vestigial to inventions. This will not, I imagine, happen overnight, but could be a slow progression—or degeneration on the part of our species—to the point where the data on someone becomes more important than the person themselves, or even when the actions we take are redundant to what the machine can accomplish, with considerably less consternation.

I am not suggesting that we are at this precipice, yet. Some things I’ve seen recently in our little corner of the world make me wonder where this digital thing might be heading, why we might or might not want to go there and where it might all end up.

The first item for consideration comes under the heading of virtual/tactile imaging, an oxymoron that becomes resolved once you see the machine in question in action. I recently saw a preview of Microsoft’s “Surface” (, a tabletop screen image organizer/media center/distributor. From the outside it looks like another piece of furniture, but so does a TV, and we know the impact that has had on our lives. It is shown lain inside a coffee table.

The users are shown bringing images up from a file folder of some sort where the pictures appear as a film strip or as a deck of cards face value up. The images can be moved around the table using touch; you can grab a bunch of images at once or individually, enlarging them by sliding your fingers outwards on the image edges or shrinking them by pinching fingers together. True, similar features are now available in various multimedia devices; the new Mac Air Book has a touch sensitive pad that allows you to do similar actions, albeit without the on-screen interactivity Surface offers.

This might sound like fun for those with nothing else to do, but Surface goes beyond the mere shuffling of picture cards. For example, the happy couple depicted in the trailer is shown transferring images to a cell phone. The cell phone sits on the surface of the Surface and creates a “cloud” (I don’t know how else to describe it) around itself. The user simply drags the images into that cloud and voila, the images are transferred forthwith. They are also shown selecting an image and then touching an e-mail function, which brings up a postcard type format onto which they hand draw “Mom”, assuming Mom has been aliased in the accompanying program, and off the images go. They could also, I imagine, post to a Web gallery, their MySpace page, blog or wherever they might want their images to travel. There was even a segment where a video file came up and all the user had to do was touch the image and the video played (and I am assuming will go wirelessly to a TV as well).

Prints Part of Equation?

Not shown, but always on my mind is printing. Or will prints become part of the collateral damage (as film is fast becoming) of this brave new world? Considering the ease with which images can be evoked and moved about there’s no reason why there can’t be a print station “cloud”, where images are sent wirelessly to the home networked printer or even to a local store or Internet print provider. Of course cameras should also create a “cloud” that makes downloading easy as well.

This sort of thing raises all sorts of questions about how we have surrendered our memories to machines. Yes, it all seems quite impressive, but how far will we all go in this direction? Can we trust this sort of gizmo to hold onto our precious images and not someday crash and burn? It certainly fits into the latest mantra of the digital imaging world—having access to your images anytime, anywhere and on any device. But lest we forget—digital images are tenuous, fragile things totally dependent on the machine to make them real. There is some fear, not without merit, that this generation will be the one that leaves few, if any images of their lives behind for future generations to treasure. Is the price of ultimate access today going to be eventual loss tomorrow? Having been in this game for a while I can attest to the fact that the rush of technology has left many, many images behind. Just thought I’d raise the question.

Too Smart

On another note, but to the point, I was somewhat taken aback by the negative reaction of some of the photo press to the proliferation and growth of technology in “smart” cameras at this year’s PMA. Comments ranged from resentment to bemoaning the loss of a photographer’s input in the creation of an image. The insertion of complex algorithms into Scene Modes (presumptions about interpretation abound); of intelligent autoexposure (selective gain within the frame); and even an innocuous feature like “smile click” (where of all things the camera awaits a cheery pose) somehow makes a number of press types a bit nervous. While they scoff at some of the improvements in their usually cynical way, underneath is a discomfort that the machine is taking over the creative process and undermining the skill, and the joy of learning and mastering technique.

You might think this is an elitist attitude—after all, getting better pictures is great—but they all sense that something is being lost here that, if the trends continue, will not be found again. Pros have even more unease as they see the border between pro and amateur being dissolved by smart cameras, super high-res advanced amateur models and high tech. Is this the democratization of photography, or merely previous definitions being changed? True, the eye of the pro and enthusiast will continue to make the difference. But visual literacy, rather than technical skill, might become the most important part of how we define professional photographers in the future. But there’s no question that the machine has inserted itself firmly between a photographer and his or her craft. Digital has forced itself into the process in a big way.

The Digital Aftershock

In short, what we are fast approaching is the day when all images will be virtual and omnipresent—and frighteningly ethereal. And that, as an industry, we have yet to feel the full impact of digital on how we work and earn a living. What we have now is an interim solution, a tenuous setup of jobs and systems that speak more to a hybrid than a full-fledged digital world. I certainly am not proposing that we resist this change, but I do suggest that we rethink our position. The present compromises between the old and new tech, this hybrid space we now occupy, will be swept aside. When that happens, what we think is firmly in place now will have to strike its own compromises with the future. yy