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Digital Rotary Phones

September 9, 2008

I often wonder what my generation holds familiar that the next will not know at all. One example is rotary phones. I can still remember where my fingers need to be when dialing a number on one. The spacial arrangement of numbers is more logical with this circular system than the broken-lined system we use today. And, it is kind of fun to dial the circle of holes.

The digital age has erased some degree of tactile harmony with the things around us. The iPhone I type this blog on is indeed touch sensitive, but the graphics below the smooth glass surface use faux highlights and drop-shadows to stimulate a tactile impulse. Heck, there’s even a couple of retro iPhone applications available that create a virtual rotary dial for anyone silly enough to want it.

Digital rotary phone applications are available for your iPhone.

For those that can't shake the past, several digital rotary phone applications like this iRetroPhone are available for your iPhone.

Eventually though, as generations lose the tactile memories of analog technology, perhaps highlights and drop-shadows will also become merely a nostalgic memory. But for now, faux tactile design is precisely what ties our humanity to technology.

Another example is the record-scratch sound effect. I suspect few people from generation Y on truly identify with the recoil reaction of a scratching turntable needle across a record. Sure, many have heard, and continue to hear, DJ’s purposely doing it in the name of musical art. But in these cd/dvd/iPod days, unless one is an audiophile, the true understanding of the sanctity of the fingerprint-less LP is elusive. Most likely, for them, the record-scratch sound is identifiable only in the abstract, learned like Pavlov’s dog through the repetitive and associative sound effect usage in movies and on television when a mistake or slip-up takes place.

But the sound evokes something far more visceral for the rest of us. We think of how we slipped records out of tissue-lined dust jackets and held them on the outer rims with as little contact as possible. Felt pads applied in a precise bias to the record’s grooves cleaned any unwanted dust from the record’s sacred surface. And lint was ever so carefully removed from the stylus needle. A mishap resulting in a scratching needle across the pristine record surface set the angels in heaven into cardiac arrest. It’s hard to imagine any digital substitute to this cringe-inducing sound.

In some ways, digital technology is advancing at a quicker rate than we are able to adapt. We hold on to the physical realm as a default, so technology has to bend over backwards for us. Point and shoot digital cameras simulate traditional SLR shutter sounds, for example.

Perhaps designers in this technological age simply aren’t applying their genius towards truly ground breaking design ideas to break us out of the analog days of old. Apple was somewhat innovative with it’s iPod and iPhone designs. The iPhone’s touch-screen technology is pretty amazing, but the interface design is still pretty conventional. The iPod is perhaps a bit more innovative with it’s nifty dial interface, but it hearkens to the rotary phone of old…in a way.

It’s possible we may never completely break free of our analog roots. We tried it already with digital watches. Digital watches are still plentiful in the marketplace, but springs, sprockets, and ticking hands on a dial still hold the test of time.

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