Interacting with the Undead: A Crash Course on the “Inhuman Factors” of Computing

I did a far-ranging interview last week with Nora Young, the host of CBC Radio’s national technology and trend-watching show called Spark.

But the most critical and timely topic we ventured into was the burning question on everyone’s mind as All Hallows’ Eve rapidly approaches:

Can zombies use touchscreens?

This question treads (or shall we say, shambles) into the widely neglected area of Inhuman Factors, a branch of Human-Computer Interaction that studies technological affordances for the most disenfranchised and unembodied users of them all–the undead.

Fortunately for Nora, however, I am the world’s foremost authority on the topic.

And I was only too happy to speak to this glaring oversight in how we design today’s technologies, one that I have long campaigned to redress.

Needless to say, Zombie-Computer Interaction (ZCI) is an area rife with dire usability problems.

You can listen to the podcast and see how Nora sparked the discussion here.

But to clear up some common myths and misconceptions of ZCI, let me articulate seven critical design observations to keep in mind when designing technology for the undead:

  1.  Yes, zombies can use touchscreens–with appropriate design.
  2. Thus, like everything else in design, the correct answer is:
    “It Depends.”
  3. The corpse has to be fresh. Humans are essentially giant bags of water; touchscreens are sensitive to the capacitance induced by the moisture in our bodies. So long as the undead creature has recently departed the realm of the living, then, the capacitive touchscreens commonplace in today’s technology should respond appropriately.
  4. Results also may be acceptable if the zombie has fed on a sufficient quantity of brains in the last 24-36 hours.
  5. MOAR BRAINS! are better.
  6. Nonetheless, the water content of a motive corpse can be a significant barrier in day-to-day (or, to speak more precisely, night-to-night) interactions of the undead with tablets, smartphones, bank kiosks, and the like. In particular, touchscreens often completely fail to respond to mummies, ghasts, vampires, and the rarely-studied windigo of Algonquian legend–all due to the extreme desiccation of the corporeal form.
  7. Fortunately for these dried-up souls, the graveyard of devices-past is replete with resistive touchscreen technology such as the once-revered Palm Pilot handheld computer, as document in the frightening and deeply disturbing Buxton Collection of Input Devices and Technologies. These devices respond successfuly to the finger-taps of the desiccated undead because they sense contact pressure, not capacitance.

So let me recap the lessons:
Zombies can definitely use touchscreens; brains are good, MOAR BRAINS are better; and if you see a zombie sporting a Palm Pilot run like hell, because that sucker is damned hungry.

But naturally, the ground-breaking discussion on Zombie-Computer Interaction sparked by Nora’s provocation has triggered a flurry of follow-on questions from concerned citizens to my inbox:

What about ghosts? Can a ghost use a touchscreen?

A ghost is an unholy manifestation of non-corporeal form. Lacking an embodied form, a ghost therefore cannot use a touchscreen–their hand passes right through it. But ghosts can be sensed by light, such as laser rangefinders, or the depth-sensing technology of the Kinect camera for the XBox.

However, ghosts frequently can and do leave behind traces of ectoplasmic goo, which can cause touchscreens to respond in a strange and highly erratic manner.

If you have ever made a typo on a touchscreen keyboard, or triggered Angry Birds by accident when you could swear you were reaching for some other icon–chances are that “ghost contact” was triggered by a disembodied spirit trying to communicate with you from the beyond.

If this happens to you, I highly recommend that you immediately stop what you are doing and install every touchscreen Ouija board app you can find so that you can open a suitable communication channel with the realm of the dead.

What about Cthulu–H. P. Lovecraft’s terrifying cosmic deity that is part man, part loathsome alien form, and part giant squid? Can Cthulu use a touchscreen?

Studies are inconclusive. Scott’s great expedition to the Transantarctic mountains–where records of Cthulu are rumored to be hidden–vanished in the icy wastes, never to be heard from again. R. Carter et al. studied the literature extensively and promptly went insane.

Other researchers, including myself, have been understandably dissuaded from examining the issue further.

My opinion, unsupported by data, is that as a pan-dimensional being Cthulu can touch whatever the hell he wants–when the stars are right and the lost city of R’lyeh rises once again from the slimy eons-deep vaults of the black Pacific.

A lot of PEOPLE are WORRIED about Lawyers. Can lawyers use touchscreens as well?

Sadly, it is widely believed (and backed up by scientific studies) that most lawyers have no soul.

Therefore the majority of lawyers cannot use a touchscreen at all.

This is why summons and lawsuits always arrive in paper form from a beady-eyed courier.

_____________________________________________________

Other noteworthy challenges to conventional INHUMAN FACTORS design wisdom

I’ve also fielded a variety of questions and strongly-held opinions from the far and dark corners of the Twittersphere.

Needless to say, these are clearly highly disturbed individuals, so I recommend that you interact with them at your own risk.

All right. I think I’ve put this topic to rest.

But keep the questions coming.

And be careful tonight.

Be sure to post in the comments below, or tweet me after midnight @ken_hinckley and I’ll do my best to give you a scientifically rigorous (if not rigor-mortis-ish) response.

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