A comforting lie

Publication date: 7 December 2014
Last modified 07-Dec-2014.


A "skeuomorph" (pronounced skew-o-morf) is a thing which is different from another thing, but whose form imitates the other thing. The thing being imitated is usually an older version of the object featuring the skeuomorph. So, for instance, a round watch face with LCD hands on a quartz watch is a skeuomorph. So is an electric heater that's trying to look like a wood fire.

Skeuomorphs have been around approximately forever. Ancient Greek temples have marble columns with square bits at the top and bottom; those are only there to echo the shape of older wooden columns. The wood columns needed load-spreaders to stop the end grain from splitting. The stone columns don't, but it became a tradition.

Skeuomorphic icon

High technology is full of skeuomorphs, many of which are pretty obvious. Wood-grained "bookshelves" on your tablet computer's e-reader software. "Settings" icons showing spanners and gears. Actually, a lot of interface icons practically have to be skeuomorphic to be easy to figure out - e-mail programs get envelope icons, and the Photoshop toolbar's full of pencils and paint-buckets, because those are the most effective images to indicate the buttons' functions to human beings. For the same reason, but perhaps less effectively if the user is under the age of 20, there are still plenty of "save" icons that look like floppy disks.

And even when the buttons just look like buttons - well, presenting some program control as a "3D" button at all is a skeuomorph. And any time an interface button "sinks into" the interface when you "press" it, with or without a clicking sound effect? Skeuomorph.

You can take this too far. Never mind the excessively-woodgrained old-iOS interface (extended even further here!)... how about Microsoft's famously terrible "Bob"?

Bob tried to lay out a computer like a house, like The Sims except without fires, bathrooms or fun. Around the same time, CompuServe was using a similar metaphor, with an online data service laid out like a town - an interface which was, fortunately, only skin deep.

This sort of thing may, may, make sense for educational software for very small children titled "Richard Scarry's Something-Or-Other", but as a general-purpose computer interface it's like having a car that only accelerates when you say "Giddyup!"

Some skeuomorphs are more subtle, though. Completion bars and spinning activity indicators, for instance. They look like some kind of mechanical indicator or level gauge - like a light on an intercom, or the spinning flow indicator on an old-fashioned petrol pump, or the fuel gauge in a car - but they don't actually necessarily indicate that a given job is getting any closer to completion. (They may also lie to you in subtler ways.)

A Web browser has no idea when a server's actually going to get around to sending the rest of a page, but it'll keep spinning a little thingummy or, in older browsers, drawing an actual fake completion bar, so the user gets the impression that the computer is working hard for them. And also so the user doesn't think the browser's crashed.

The Windows 95/98 startup-screen "activity bar", for instance, was just a BMP file with colour cycling of part of the palette. It did stop animating if the computer totally hung, but it wasn't connected to any actual startup process.

There's a more extreme version of skeuomorphism that TV Tropes dubbed The Coconut Effect, when some sound or visual oddity, like coconuts being clopped together to make hoofbeat noises, becomes expected in media and the lack of it seems "unrealistic". Even though it was completely made up in the first place, and was never particularly like anything in the real world at all. People treat such things like a skeuomorph, but the things only refer back to fiction.

If you're watching a digitally distributed movie that was shot direct to hard drive and contains computer-generated special effects, though, and you see lens flare and film grain on the screen that were computer-generated along with the spaceships and/or robots, those are still skeuomorphs. 3D CGI now allows lens flares to alarm the audience by popping right out of the screen. Movies with a faux-documentary look are another, slightly mutated, form of skeuomorph.

You'll also encounter a sneakily helpful little skeuomorph one every time you use a digital telephony system. Which is to say, every time you use a mobile phone, or a VoIP phone, or several other kinds of Internet voice chat, or indeed almost any other kind of telephone today that is not made of string and tin cans. Your old landline phone is still an analogue device, but the analogueness only lasts until the wire hits a local mini-exchange and the inefficient analogue audio is squished into a tiny digital dataflow.

Some amount of hissy background noise, you see, is unavoidable for analogue audio links. Analogue broadcast radio, landline phones, pre-digital mobile phones. But digital systems don't work like that. They pretty much work perfectly, or not at all. There may still be background noise because microphones pick up environmental sounds from traffic or weather or the users' heavy breathing or what-have-you, and mobile phones can have drop-outs in the signal when one or both handsets in a call just can't hear a cell base-station, but nothing in the transmission system creates its own hiss.

Digital phone systems also all carve your conversations into delightfully-named "talkspurts". They detect when you're talking and send data then, but when you aren't talking they save bandwidth by not sending any data at all. So even if there's lots of "real world" background noise - because, say, the person talking into the phone is in a tin-roofed shack and it's raining - no audio at all will be transmitted when the phone doesn't detect actual speech.

(I have now mentioned of "tin cans" and "tin roofs", which like "tinfoil" are products which have not actually been made of tin for a long time. You could argue that such names are a sort of linguistic skeuomorph, but I think just "misnomer" is adequate.)

Talkspurts separated by total silence create a psychological problem: They sound weird. You will have heard this kind of voice recording with harsh voice-operated switching, perhaps accompanying cockpit video from military aircraft, or in cockpit recordings from commercial planes, or in footage of people walking on the moon. (Those astronauts were using analogue audio transmission, but the voice-operated mics totally squelched the signal when input was quiet.) Or just in walkie-talkie conversations, for that matter. The contrast is more stark in these sorts of recordings, because there's often a lot of background noise behind every speaker, but you only hear that noise when someone's talking. When nobody's saying anything... sudden dead quiet.

There's often not much background noise in phone conversations. Mobile-phone designers, in particular, go to great lengths to reject as much noise as possible. But there's still a sharply noticeable contrast if the link goes completely quiet when nobody's speaking.

When that happens, you can almost guarantee that the next thing said by one or more people on the line will be "Hello? Are you there?". A noiseless audio link is, when nobody's talking, indistinguishable from the lack of a link.

Dead silence is also almost unknown in film soundtracks, even when a scene is meant to be dead silent, for reasons analogous to why pitch-black scenes are almost never actually pitch black on the screen. There's probably music in a "silent" scene; if there isn't, there's wind noise, or floor creaks, or a truck driving by, or something to prevent the audience from thinking someone kicked a plug out of the wall. (And/or hearing a bloke in row three burp and ruin the ambience.)

This problem will abate in the future, when we're all jacked into the dataspace and cyber-chatting subvocally while we navigate an Internet that's for some reason turned into brightly-coloured geometric shapes. For the time being, though, the silence-equals-a-lost-connection problem is unavoidable, and can only be fixed by a lovely little skeuomorph that's only made better by its name:

"Comfort noise".

Comfort noise is a fake hiss that your mobile phone, your VoIP phone, your corporate digital phone system, whatever, creates to mask the silences between talkspurts. That hiss isn't actually coming down the line, from some analogue amplifier and hundreds of kilometres of copper; it's created independently at each end by kindly computers.

(The down side of this is that the comfort noise may continue even if the connection has failed. It's meant to cut off then, but it doesn't always.)

Some systems let you turn the comfort noise down, or even completely off, but that's seldom a good idea. We've all been trained to say "Hello? Hello?" when that happens. And the ubiquity of comfort noise in current systems means the kids these days are being trained to need it just like everybody else.

(All mobile phones have automatic gain control and dynamic-range compression that will, if anything, make quiet speech more comprehensible for the listener than shouting, but people still tend to holler into their mobile phones. Deprive them of their comfort noise and you will only worsen the plague of people yelling into their smartphone - whose interface is full of skeuomorphic icons! - every bit as loudly as Eighties yuppies yelled at their brokers via their Motorola brickphones.)

More obvious telephone skeuomorphs are fading away. People will still have electric-bell ring-tones for their mobile phones and Internet chat for as long as people like that noise, but the dial-tone is dying out with the landline. (It persists in some large-print big-buttoned Phones For Doddering Ancients, though; the phone starts playing its fake dialtone noise in response to a meaningless "picking up" of the phone, when the user starts entering a number to call.)

Those wired or Bluetooth handsets shaped like old-style landline handsets are probably going to go out of fashion, too, at least among people who don't believe mobile phones cause cancer. (And we may by now, blessedly, finally have no current-model digital cameras that default to making a cheesy fake shutter-and-motor-wind noise when you take a photo.)

Comfort noise might be immortal, though. Careful research into communication systems using technology far beyond our own has shown me that it's been around since a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

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