Trumpets, you say… I can kind of see why they’d be good on a monitor...

It’s tough being a creative technology junkie. No matter what new gonks and gizmos that hardware and software makers bolt onto their latest release, I’m always left dreaming about the next fix.

It doesn’t matter what the announcement, or new feature.

“Trumpets, you say… well, I can kind of see why they’d be good on a monitor,” I’ll observe to the sweating PR manager. “And I like the idea of it coming with three wishes straight out of the box, but I’m not sure about its ability to transform into five different kitchen utensils. Nope – it lacks a certain something…,” I’ll say, before despondently stepping out into the rain-swept streets and reassuringly stroking my iPod through my jacket.

When you’re surrounded by the very latest creative wares, ones that – short of attaching a spade – are meant to help you dig down to discover a rich vein of creativity, you can quickly get jaded. Monitors get slightly bigger over time – a bit like a creative hack’s waist line – and graphics cards tend to double their RAM. Next prediction: NVidia will create a 1GB graphics card, Apple will release a G6, storage capacity will go up, and prices will come down. See? The lack of surprise, of genuine excitement is what is often missing from the racks of creative tools available and for that, we probably need to follow Cher’s advice, and turn back time (cue wobbly music and spirally graphic swirls)…

Back in the non-CG-generated mists of the distant past, people made the most incredibly tactile products when it came to creativity. Quills, chisels, spray cans, brushes, lead type, printing presses, and charcoal were art tools that gave something that the sterile world of digital often lacks – a grubby, mechanical sort of feedback that resulted in mucky hands and beaming smiles at the end of a project. We may be able to cut-&-paste today, but where’s the fun if you can’t get high on the mounting spray?

Take digital photography. Modern, digital snappers slavishly follow a few simple rules. Make it silver, make it tiny, and cram as many megapixels as you can into the resulting silver box. Have you tried to take a picture with some of the tiniest of compact digitals? It’s like squinting at the world through the outer shell of a very expensive, silver matchbox.

Tactile snappers

Photography used to be tactile as well, though. Time was, you’d hold a huge great flash and taking a picture involved ducking under a blanket and giving your subject semi-permanent blindness as the flash went off. If that isn’t putting the ‘act’ in tactile, I don’t know what is. Even more modern film cameras have reassuring whirs of electronic motors (my plan for a petrol-driven camera was sadly rejected by Nikon), the click of the shutter, and tons of dials and levels to twist and pull.

Not all is lost in a more touchy-feely past, however, and the future might not be so silent, small, and silver as I first thought. Step forward Epson, with a proposed camera that might have been designed by a steam-engine driver on his day off. Its R-D1 digital camera is like discovering the BBC will rerun the entire series of Doctor Who – suddenly the world seems like it’s going to be all right again.

What’s cool about it? Well, it doesn’t come with any trumpets, which I figured was a good start, but it does come with a mechanical, wind-on lever that cocks the mechanical shutter. Yep, that’s two ‘mechanicals’ in a digital product. It ensures the illusion of using a film camera, and saves battery life. It’s also very retro, especially as the camera looks as if it got lost in the 1950s and only managed to surface again in this decade. Additionally, it has a rangefinder rather than an autofocus system, and can accept over 200 lenses.

Epson is clearly insane. In a time when digital camera makers think that somehow squeezing artificial intelligence into cameras the size of garden peas will somehow make us take better pictures, Epson has twigged that people actually enjoy the art of taking great images. It’s a struggle, one that requires manual control rather than preprogrammed auto-pilots, and tactile tuning rather than digital trumpets. Or wishes.