A Case Study on the Influence of Gestural Computing

By Nicholas O’Brien

As the proliferation of tablet computing and mobile browsing has developed over the past two years, I’ve begun to notice an aesthetic shift in the visual vernacular used to describe our surrounding non-technological environment. The emergence of gesture based computing and mutli-touch screen interactivity has become such a powerful common pantomime that even popular advertising has begun to adopt these movements to signify more than just a way of paging through your apps collection. A striking example of this can be found in the above commercial for the 2011 Land Rover Discovery 4 directed by Scott Lyon.

I’m convinced that this simple 30 second video is an effective piece of advertising because of the underlying and perhaps unwittingly comment on portable computing the piece potentially offers. I’ve had a long-standing belief that the “cutting-edge” of advertising is deeply indebted to the avant-garde’s of their respective time. However, in this instance I feel compelled to talk about how this commercial is evidence of the shortened critical distance that contemporary digital culture has bridged between artists working on conceptual margins and those working to sell products to the masses. Immediately, I am drawn to consider how the visual trope of the “fourth wall” has been employed and altered to fit our current digital paradigm.1 The tradition of recognizing viewership and a subsequent undermining of the surface of a performance or projection is utilized through the use of a fictional audience member’s gesture; movements that clearly mimic those of portable computing touch screens.

In other words, the slippage of surface(s)/screen(s) in the ad shows how readily we are to blur the polarity we have created between what is consider real and what is considered virtual. The constructed space and time that the vehicle traverses over the course of this clip not only exposes the artificiality of the car commercial, but also reveals popular attitudes we’ve developed around the immersive qualities of screen space. A heightened awareness of how our imaginations are at work within the screen is easily equatable to the way we drive. We compile narratives and fictions in both of those respective navigational stations – the difference is that driving is linear and browsing is (typically) multi-directional. We do refer to the web as the information superhighway, after all.

All joking aside however, the ad presents a critical paradox when the alarming lack of self-reflexivity found within product driven commerce platforms comes under scrutiny. The contradiction can be pin-pointed when we realize how rapid browsing of ever-changing contexts is depicted as feeling more natural - or more comforting - for audiences than the actual driving of a car. One could speculate that we are now drawn to the act of driving only for the benefit of interfacing with a GPS to tell us where we are going and where we have been. This might be a stretch, but being able to equate the familiarity of the car to the familiarity of the screen - as well as draw a parallel between the sense of agency found within those settings - is too strong to ignore.2

Using the illusion of contextualized space as merely a convenient perspective to justify and contextualize an object of desire and/or luxury illustrates another tendency in contemporary digital frameworks: algorithmic filtration of content.3 Under the guise of more stream-lined content delivery, search engines have slowly started to implement processes that provide users with search results that are specifically catered to a rough approximation of someone’s personality based upon IP location, cache, cookie files and other browsing data. These procedures have gone relatively unnoticed by most consumer/browsers due to the assumptive objectivity of search engines and the infrastructure of the web. Unfortunately, the adaptation of this method of content delivery has made most everyday/casual users somewhat complacent and uncritical of the ways in which their personal browsing habits have been manipulated into market data. That blissful ignorance might be either influenced by, or contribute to, the relative short attention span that the web is often associated with (and blamed for).

The car is actually a beautiful metaphor for these concerns. Driving is already a way of imposing a technological mediation of landscape and nature. A casual observer of the countryside is only interested in the vistas and outlooks to gaze upon either from the vantage of the road or if stops are convenient. Very few venture off the predetermined path, or decide to pull over when and where ever they please in order to hike into the hills and brush to explore an area few have laid eyes on. This is not to say that we must always demand ourselves to be adventurous (and potentially put ourselves and families at risk), but an effort must be made  to not prevent ourselves from loosing that sense of discovery that  travel and browsing provide so readily.

To a certain extent the ad also highlights an impatience that consumers have developed as a result of the instantaneous gratification that the web engenders through the above mentioned filtration system. The fictitious browser that pages through the landscape seems as though they are never quite satisfied with the context their Land Rover occupies, or even what it should exactly be used best for. That permanent unsettled fidgeting seems emblematic of – or at least closely tied to - how gestural computing has influenced our behaviors online.

1 for other popular/fun examples: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BreakingTheFourthWall

2 see Janet Murray

3 Eli Pariser talks about this in a TED talk he gave earlier this year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8ofWFx525s