Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"Play", "Rewind", "FF" Arrows

My five year old daughter asked me the other day why little arrows are used to designate play and other functions on the Tivo remote. Like many questions from my daughter, I knew the answer, but I couldn't tell her since she wouldn't understand it. So I used the fatherly "just because", which she accepted at face value.

But it did make me think about how these old technology designations are being used for new technology. Their original meaning is now obsolete, but the mental model they represent will now be with us forever.

The RWD, FF, PLAY arrows were originally used for reel-to-reel machines. The right facing play arrow designated the direction the tape was moving, the FF and RWD buttons originally double arrows designating that the direction the tape was moving was "fast".

So it was a pretty straight-forward concept that made a lot of sense. As technology developed to cassette tapes and VCRs, the concept still held. After all, the cassette was really a compact version of the reel-to-reel, so the arrows still represented the direction and speed that the tape was moving.

The model started breaking down with the advent of the digital age. CDs and then DVDs do spin, so one could argue that arrows still make a little sense, except that when you rewind a CD and DVD the direction of the spinning doesn't change. The buttons starting becoming conceptual.

Move forward to the next generation of all digital products - iPods, for example - that have absolutely no moving parts, and all of the sudden the arrows stop representing anything physical. They actually represent only a concept that is now ingrained in the consumer consciousness: right arrow means forward progress in the digital file, left arrow represents backward progress. This is just an arbitrary designation that everyone now accepts thanks to the original reel-to-reel technology.

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