Motion Control vs Controlling Your Motions

As the tongue speaketh to the ear, so the gesture speaketh to the eye. ~Francis Bacon

Galleons, the last time I bothered with so much as a mention of the Kinect and… whatever-fuck-name the PS3 version is sporting was back after E3 in 2010. So, back when these were both being unveiled. This is because I have little-to-no real interest in the systems. Having since tried the Kinect, I can say that I felt the same way about it that I did with the Wii. At first, it was mildly interesting due to its shiny newness. But as the novelty wore off, so did the appeal.

I’m a gamer. I wanted to like them. I wanted to welcome them into my world, to frolic hand-in-hand with the Kinect through a field of slaughtered zombies while Sister Hazel plays.

Alas, that was not to be.

And while I could spend all day lamenting the wasted potential of the systems (or, perhaps, arguing the point that the lauded “potential” of these systems was nothing more than a slick veneer on an idea that always had far more flaws than anyone was willing to admit), the Kinect and Wii particularly (I hear less and less about the Playstation… whatever these days) have carved their own little niche in the gaming market. And, naturally, any small technological success leads to progressive leapings-off in new and exciting directions.

So, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to take this motion-control tech and apply it to other facets of life. To be fair, video games are far from the first to attempt motion-control, but they rank as among the most commercially successful. And certainly the most visible in the current market. As such, it can be argued that it was their success that has opened the floodgates, and thus why I’m not going to spend time tracking back through the history of motion-control.

Anyway, the latest offering to the humble altars of Finicky Public Opinion and First World Laziness is the slaughtered corpse of the classic television remote. At the Consumer’s Electronics Show in Las Vegas happening this very week, one of the big themes is going to be companies showcasing their work on motion-controlled television.

It’s shiny. It’s new. It’s got flash and style and a sexy tech allure. It’s the future.

And I don’t like it.

This is why.


For years, we’ve been waiting for all those science fiction dreams to become a reality (while tending to ignore the fact that so many have- look at your cell phone, with its likely camera and music and video and web capabilities, and tell me that’s not some goddamn “future tech” right there). “Where are the flying cars?” the public laments, despite the fact that Americans alone get in about 11 million traffic accidents a year just on the goddamn terrestrial roads (I’m not giving anyone license to use the airspace, too). And while physics keeps teasing us with glimpses of quantum teleportation (and telling us to STFU about goddamn time travel), we find ourselves yearning for the sleek and shiny world of the future promised us by authors and filmmakers (though why we want that is beyond me, seeing as how those future worlds are never the utopian societies they seem- it’s always “totalitarianism this” and “soylent green that” and “Carrousel all up in this shit”).

And a staple of this magical future world is always voice and motion control. With a command, food is on the table. With a wave of the hand, you’ve minimized a window on a transparent display. Pretty tricks on the big screen, but now we’re striving to make them real.

The tech is, of course, mired in problems. The primary one being that, much like all attempts at voice activation, motion-controlled electronics have no way of distinguishing between conversational gestures and deliberate ones. And while this seems like a serious obstacle toward ever making this tech a workable reality… there is, of course, an option. And that’s a censorship of gesticulation, a refusal to move unless it serves a purpose.

I shudder at the thought.

In order to make motion control work properly, we would have to stifle all extraneous movements. Which may seem like a piece of cake to you more stoic and reserved sorts, but for those of us who have been described as creatures with a tendency to “do flaily things with our arms,” it’s a terrifying prospect. Not just because of the amount of work involved in training years of wild gesticulation out of us, but because of what we will lose in the process.

Communication is about more than just the sounds we utter, more than the gargling, spitting aural cacophony jittering from tongue, teeth, and throat. It’s a combination of gestures, expressions, movements, words, and inflection. Hell, gesticulation is so much a part of how we communicate that it’s actually interpreted by the same areas of the brain as the spoken word- it is language. As anthropologist Adam Kendon said, “Gesticulation… is employed, along with speech, in fashioning an effective utterance unit.” Studies have shown that individuals glean more from speech paired with gestures than they do from speech alone. Not only that, but gesturing has been proven to help a speaker retrieve words from their lexicon more efficiently.

With gesticulation being such a prominent, useful part of our communication process, how could we justify technology that will force us to cease our spasmodic movements? To truncate our communication by eliminating gestures is a step toward the full-scale language overhaul imagined in George Orwell’s 1984. Without expansive vocabularies and methods of expression, our critical thinking and imagination whither. We lose our voices. We lose the ability to formulate arguments, to see mistreatment. We are dependent on language. And part of our language is our gestures.

These motion-controlled, remote-free systems being flashed about Las Vegas right now allow you to wave your hand or turn your head to manipulate your viewing experience. An errant twitch of the head could be interpreted as a change in channel. Frustrating, to be sure. We would train ourselves to stillness, and we would lose the vibrancy and depth of our communication. Even more so than the isolationism fostered by advancing technology, this communication degradation frightens me.

It’s an implication that few probably think about, but it’s been weighing on me since I read about this yesterday. Perhaps I have become a bit of a curmudgeon in my old age, unwilling to adapt to a changing world. I’ve already expressed my dislike of those goddamn e-readers, now I’ve hobbled onto my soapbox and bitched about motion control.

Well, if this is what it means to be old and set in my ways, so be it.

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