I’ve been trying to capture “what it is” about software that has a sense of fun, is toylike, and which allows users to feel they are directly manipulating “real” objects that they more-or-less understand. I want to shorten the link with pen pointers instead of mice. That’s a lot of words. There’s something more basic.

Touchability. I think human beings are uniquely wired to fondle stuff, and to want to do so. My dog sniffs and tastes. Ants use their antennae. We comprehend and alter the world with our hands. I play with my so-touchable wine glass, but not with the utilitarian water glass next to it. No child can resist touching a musical instrument left out, particularly strings and pianos because they don’t need lips. I always reach for my leather coat before my ski jacket. Bad Flash sites are visually stimulating, but good ones make me want to touch it all over to be rewarded with workings and sounds.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. Not so sure it’s just about touching, Howard.

    A long time ago, I followed Brenda Laurel’s work pretty heavily. Her “Computers as Theatre” book strongly resounded w/ me as to why I was so intrigued w/ interfaces.

    Here’s a paper on a project she collaborated on during the early days of VR:

    It explores how we want to leave markers in the world like graffiti, petroglyphs, etc as a way to let others passing by that we were here.

  2. This is a wonderful link. Thank you! Anyone who has played with Croquet will find points of reference and food for thought. (FYI, I didn’t have the intellectual background to get much out of the video until I had also read the paper. The video was not a substitute. Also, if you’re not familiar with bit torrent, you need to separately download the .torrent file and start a bit torrent application/UI. You then open the file in your bit torrent application/UI, and THAT downloads the real .mp4.)

    For what it’s worth, my goal in these explorations is to move beyond simply recognizing common themes. I want to try to identify and understand a set of basic and mostly orthogonal elements that come together to form a whole experience greater than the sum of the parts. The idea is to be able to identify the separate elements and work on them independently. Or at least, that’s what I think I’m trying to do. today. So for example, I feel as though touchability is one thing, narrative is another. I think another independent concept has something to do with meta-media and construction/deconstruction, but I’m not sure yet. By contrast, the concepts that Brenda Laural describes seem to me to all be related. I expect they are “data” — informed experimental observation — that can inform an understanding of more independent and more basic concepts.

  3. Have you looked at “Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace” by Janet H. Murray

    I think she does a very good job at extrapolating the future based on recent revelations about the past introductions of new media… how the underlying technology of the new medium affects content, content creation, and content consumption.

    I think one of her main points was that constructivist/multi-participant medium best communicates “process” when compared to other medium.

    While Clark Aldrich in “Learning by Doing : A Comprehensive Guide to Simulations, Computer Games, and Pedagogy in e-Learning and Other Educational Experiences” describes from experience the challenges and tools for the new artist/author/programmer/modeler/teacher.
    He also shows the interdependency and inherent conflicts of simulations, games, and instruction.

  4. See… for more discussion of “Hamlet” and fanout from there.

    Separately, I ran into a counterexample of touchability at Sam’s Club. They had a giant (70″) nutcracker soldier. Not only was it scarry because of scale — a child has power that can hold and break a toy soldier, but not a child faced with a soldier bigger than its parents — but the darn thing wasn’t even a nutcracker. It’s mouth didn’t move. Most kids (and I think all little boys) would love to play with a giant crushing mechanism that they can actually reach and which is clearly under their safe control. They should have made the mouth move, with the lever in reach and yet the business end observable without being level with the kid’s face. Then it would have been touchable, and I wouldn’t have been able to get my kids to the next isle. As it was, they couldn’t move past the thing fast enough. So I think that a safe and controllable response to stimulus is a key part of touchability.

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