Daily Tedium

Press Your Luck

Academia finally did an in-depth study into the nature of the button press, along with how we could possibly make our buttons just a little more effective.

By Ernie Smith

Nearly a year ago, I bought a mechanical keyboard in an attempt to understand a phenomenon that I had been hearing about for a long time—the fact that many people really freaking love the heft of these old-style keys, which don’t get nearly as much love as they probably should. What I found was that I never wanted to use my full-sized Apple keyboard ever again. Burn that thing with fire! It doesn’t hold a candle to these keys! I bought this model; I recommend it heartily, even if it doesn’t have those Cherry MX keys all the hipsters like.

(Now’s a good time to shout out my friend Marcin Wichary’s forthcoming book, Shift Happens, an in-depth look at the computer keyboard.)

So, the question of course is, why? Why do we care about the nature of a button press so much?

This is a problem that researchers in Finland and South Korea recently tackled, perhaps finding the solution by asking a broader question: How can one recreate the button presses that a human does? That sounds like a silly thing to research at a distance, but the researchers (based at Finland’s Aalto University and South Korea’s KAIST) found that humans are surprisingly sophisticated when it comes to button presses, and we approach different kinds of buttons in different ways. If a button doesn’t do the job, we’ll change our approach until we find a strategy that works. It’s why people hate typing on smartphone keyboards and why Massdrop is full of keyboard nerds.

“The press of a skilled user is surprisingly elegant when looked at terms of timing, reliability, and energy use,” noted Aalto University professor Antti Oulasvirta. “We successfully press buttons without ever knowing the inner workings of a button. It is essentially a black box to our motor system. On the other hand, we also fail to activate buttons, and some buttons are known to be worse than others.”

The researchers used their findings regarding the nature of button presses to come up with a completely new kind of button-pressing technique that is intended to maximize tactile feel during rapid tapping sessions. The technique, called Impact Activation, is intended to work when the button is pressed all the way down, instead of when it’s first pressed.

That’s the opposite way that most keyboards, like mechanical keyboards with Cherry MX switches, work. They start responding as soon as you start pressing. But our brains are built to respond to the full press.

Think about this in terms of video games, for example. The worst games are often the ones where it seems like there’s lag between your presses and what’s happening on the screen. It feels like, mentally, you’re missing a step.

But by putting the presses in full lockstep with our finger-pressing motion, we potentially could have touchscreen keyboards that suck less and physical keyboards that are more effective when you’re writing the next Great American Novel. (Or, in my case, the next Great Issue of Tedium.)

The idea, the researchers say, comes down to the way our brains work. By ensuring that button presses react at the same rate our mind is working, our communication could get just a little bit better, especially during a time when we’re far more likely to communicate through button presses than even our own voices.

In case this topic fascinates you, dive into Neuromechanics of a Button Press, just one of the studies the researchers put together about pressing down on buttons.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Website Twitter