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The PlayStation 4’s touchpad and the law of unintended consequences

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Button of the month: DualShock 4 touchpad

As a way to control video games, the touchpad on the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 controller is a failure.

Sony has long used the PlayStation controller as a place to innovate. Some of those ideas stuck, like rumble and dual analog sticks. Others, like the PS3’s disastrous “Sixaxis” motion controls, were bigger failures, used by launch titles and then quickly abandoned.

And while many of the additions Sony made with the DualShock 4 — like the light bar and integrated speaker — still get used today, the touch-sensitive interface was one of the first things that developers (both first- and third-party) abandoned, despite its prevalence in early PS4 games like Infamous: Second Son.

The touch bar lets players control games with swipe gestures like they would on a phone, and that probably doomed it to failure, since PS4 games are played while looking at a television rather than a screen in your hands. Averting your eyes to look at a different thing to make sure that you’re making the correct swiping gesture to open a door or activate a stealth kill just didn’t make sense when there were perfectly good buttons and triggers that could do the same thing with clearer, tactile efficiency that didn’t divert your attention. It’s the same issue that hurts the Touch Bar on Apple’s recent MacBook Pros, in microcosm.

But as with many things in life, there were unintended consequences as developers dropped support, and the result is that what should have been the DualShock 4’s biggest failure is actually one of its biggest successes. And that’s because the touchpad isn’t just a flat, touch interface: it’s also a button. Specifically, a giant, clicky button that spans the entire controller, leaving practically no wasted space in the middle.

And developers have cleverly repurposed that giant button into the world’s biggest pause button, eclipsing the tiny “options” key that Sony likely meant to fill that role. And in that role, the touch bar shines.

Pressing the pause button isn’t something that should take deliberation or fumbling to find the right spot on the controller, as nearly every other controller design intends. Because pressing pause isn’t usually a premeditated action — it’s something urgent, because something in the real world is demanding your exit from the virtual one.

It should be big and easy: the giant red emergency button you press because your pizza delivery is knocking or your phone is ringing or your roommate just started shouting because something they were cooking just burst into flames. The touchpad is practically perfect for this: big, pressable from all sides of the controller, and impossible to miss.

And who knows? Maybe Sony’s already patented touchscreen controller might finally perfect the touchpad. Just so long as it doesn’t get rid of the button.