Of recent I’ve come to the conclusion that the one defining characteristic that is so fulfilling about using appropriately designed tools is that they become an extension of the user themselves, be it their body, their hands, or indeed their mind. Apples more recent device is a case in point, the iPad reduces the user interface to the extent that one feels as if they are actually ‘holding’ a webpage or application – and to all extents and purposes they are. However if one was to take this notion to the next logical level surely we would find that for many circumstances the ultimate interface would be no interface at all, and in turn the minimal physical interaction necessary, excepting neural and thought based interfaces, would be a simple and discrete gesture.
However many of the gestural interface implementations we have seen recently are concerned with how we as users might interact with a digital reality or unreality as the case may be. Projects such as Microsoft’s Natal demonstrate how a Natural User Interface (NUI) may be used to enhance our gaming environments by using our own bodies and actions as the proverbial input device in order to control a corresponding digital self or avatar.
In a recent re-reading of Don Normans excellent book the ‘Design of Everyday Things’ I was prompted to consider the real-world scenarios whereby a gesture based system would be advantageous in interacting with physical objects.
What implications would such changes have on our lives?
Many of the interactions which strike me initially would be scenarios where one is somewhat reticent to touch a shared surface, however by affording the modification of such behaviors would we be facilitating the creation of a generation physically averse to many everyday interactions which we as humans currently take for granted?
As our interactions with objects head in a direction visibly reminiscent of something approaching telekinesis how will this affect the way in which our everyday artifacts function and in what ways will designers harness gestures to influence behavior.
Which interactions or physical devices do we encounter on a daily basis which might benefit from such an interface?
An obvious choice surely? Maybe not. Many public facing doors in buildings are already using motion sensors to detect a person as they approach. Would they benefit by requiring a directive gesture to open? Probably not, although many of us would be familiar with two scenarios in which such solutions fall short.
a) The first we’ll call ‘Playing Chicken’ – When one walks towards an ‘Automatic Door’ with the intention of entering the building, yet the doors fail to open with sufficient time, forcing the individual to either break stride or stop, face the glass and wait patiently for the doors to acknowledge their presence.
b) ‘Getting Smart’ – when the flow of people using an automatic door is out of step with the sensors timing. Causing awkward uncertainty and nervous approaches by those who wish to enter, daunted by the prospect of getting sandwiched between the unforgiving glass panes.
The name of which is my tribute to an old spy TV show Get Smart in which the character confidently faced the prospect of simliar door malfunction.
However if a simple hand gesture were required would people feel socially awkward ‘waving’ to an inanimate object, or would it only be a matter of getting used to this slight change in behavior. For instance only 15 years ago a person may have avoided the prospect of having a full-blown conversation in a public space over a mobile device, yet nowadays many feel obliged to do just that not only by necessity but mostly by choice. Social conventions regularly accommodate technological advances with a unforeseen pace.
Use of a gestural command to lift and close a toilet seat would be of great benefit hygienically speaking, particularly in public spaces where one would be much less inclined to touch a toilet lid. When I researched this idea a little further it transpires that some other designers have had ideas alongsimilar lines.
TV & Audio Systems
Use of a hand wave to change channels would initially seem useful, yet imagine a scenario where there are several people watching TV who might have differing opinions on what exactly to watch. Moving a simple single-user interface such as a remote control into a to multi-user scenario may unnecessarily complicate an otherwise straight-forward situation.
Imagine your next home audio system being able to recognise your gestures such as snapping your fingers to switch it on, a wave of your right hand to play and raising ones hand to raise the volume correspondingly. Would we want for such a thing or a would it be more a hindrance than a help.
I also remember thinking that taps would also benefit from having a non-touch interface. Again we are already familiar with motion activated taps but what about one where we facilitate greater control, allowing a user to turn it on/off, modify the flow and adjust the hot/cold streams – this could be achieved through use of gestures. Until this morning I had forgotten my thoughts on such interactions, that is until I received a message from Jasper Dekker, a product designer with Flankworks in The Netherlands who for his graduation project designed a tap which is controlled via spatial interaction.
You can view a demo of this tap in action below. There is also a more polished conceptual demonstration available here but the initial prototype spoke to me more, for some reason.
Neat huh? Seeing this prototype in action, it again struck me that the potential for gestural interfaces is vast and, if you excuse the pun – untapped, and we have only seen the beginnings of the impact such a subtle, virtually invisible technology can and will have on our daily lives.
As children we watched movies such as Star Wars where Jedi characters used their innate ability to manipulate objects at will, such behavior seemed magical at the time. However as man-machine interfaces continue to advance and their applications broaden, our interactions with the world and the objects within will accordingly becomes less intrusive and more natural.
Where else can you see gestural interfaces adding value in our day to day life?
Bill Buxton is Principal Researcher with Microsoft Research, he is a noted expert within the HCI field and was a pioneer of multi-touch interfaces back in the seventies.
He has a 30 year involvement in research, design and commentary around human aspects of technology, and digital tools for creative endeavour, including music, film and industrial design, in particular. Prior to joining Microsoft, he was a researcher at Xerox PARC, a professor at the University of Toronto, and Chief Scientist of Alias Research and SGI Inc. – where 2003 he was co-recipient of an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement.
Buxton works from the assumption that sketching is fundamental to all design activity, and explores what it means to sketch a variety of possible user experiences. His approach is aggressively low-tech and eclectic. He argues that although you can use software tools to create fully-realized interactive mockups, you generally shouldn’t. Those things aren’t sketches, they’re prototypes, and as such they eat up more time, effort, and money than is warranted in the early stages of design. What you want to do instead is produce sketches that are quick, cheap, and disposable.
“Now that we can do anything, what should we do?”
His book Sketching User Experiences – Getting the Design Right and the Right Design is an absolute must read for anyone working on software/hardware concerned with creating an engaging and usable experience. Last year he gave the first keynote presentation at MIX 09 conference.
Recently at CES, Microsoft spent time alot of time speaking about the ‘Natural User Interface’ or NUI, and how this gesture based, human oriented approach could represent one of the most significant changes to human-device interfaces since the mouse appeared next to computers in the early 1980s.
Touch, face, voice-recognition and movement sensors – all are part of an emerging field of computing often called natural user interface, or NUI. Interacting with technology in these humanistic ways is no longer limited to high-tech secret agents and Star Trek. Buxton says everyone can enjoy using technology in ways that are more adaptive to the person, location, task, social context and mood. Microsoft’s XBox technology ‘Project Natal’ incorporates face, voice, gesture, and object recognition technology to give users a variety of ways to interact with the console, all without needing a controller.
Larry Larsen’s lenghty (38 min. 42 sec) but fascinating interview with Buxton can be seen above in which he discusses his work with Microsoft on NUI technologies and the implications and impact such advances in human-machine interaction will have on our daily lives in the near future.
The field of data visualisation appears to be the ‘Plat du Jour’ of recent. It continues to gain great popularity as more and more people recognise the value of visualising data of any nature in a more aesthetic form, be it as part of a narrative, a news-story or as standalone interactive piece. Indeed as an antidote to the constant information overload we encounter everyday it makes for a welcome alternative.
“The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures”
Ben Shneiderman (1999)
However three pieces of work have caught my attention over the past number of weeks, which I’ll briefly describe in this post. They also share a common theme, in that they are either made about, made in or made by a person who lives in NYC. Perhaps a somewhat tenuous link, but one none the less.
While the entire newspaper industry sits around debating whether the internet will bring about their demise and how they may avoid such a fate, The New York Times bucks the trend by embracing it. The work carried out by the inhouse team known as the Interactive Newsroom Technologies at ‘The Gray Lady’ has been making headlines of their own for quite a while now, and justifably so. Their combination of visualisation and data is leading the field in an emerging digital storytelling domain.
Interactive Newsroom Technologies are the minds behind the online pieces which have captured the eyes and the attention of online readers, works such as their ‘Word Train ‘- a mood database which appeared on the home page for Election Day and ‘Casualities of War: Faces of the Dead’ and ambitious project which merged photography, databases, audio, and graphics – this project marked the date U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached 3,000.
The recently launched The New York Times – Innovation Portfolio aims to showcase the work carried out by the team and is itself a excellent piece of interactive design work, incidentally it was carried out by the uber-talented Jon Dobrowski. The pieces are visually represented by color-coded bubbles under the categories Virtual, Multimedia, Personal Tools, Interactive Graphics, User-Submitted and Applications. They also provide some insight into user engagement by showing the actual page-views along with the average time spent with the feature.
Well worth a visit.
Next up is an interactive map I came across which shows the income & rent data by New York City neighborhoods.
It poses the questions - Who lives here? Who can afford to live here?
This visualisation stands out for me though, in that is is beautifully executed. It enables one to view income demographics and rents in the neighborhoods of New York City. When you click on particular neighbourhood, it maps the number of families in each income category on the multicolored bar residing at the foot of the interface.
Web & Information design was carried out by by Sha Hwand, Zach Watson and William Wang with concept and project direction by Rosten Woo and John Mangier of The Center for Urban Pedagogy.
As Tim O Reilly already pointed out this type of visualisation should be part of every city’s eGovernment toolkit, indeed every countrys. A highly functional yet simplistic visualisation that exposes the potential for applications as a means of explaining the numbers by way of the pictures.
Anthropology + Mapping Application + Data Visualisation = Awesome.
I first stumbled across the work of Jonathan Harris back in 2005, which happended to be an interactive piece named Phylotaxis it aimed to be an expression of the space where science meets culture. He designed it in collaboration with the one and only Stefan Sagmeister and it was commisioned by SEED magazine who recently hired another guru, namely Ben Fry to head up their data visualisation group.
Returning to Harris, his work aims to comibine elements of computer science, anthropology, visual art and storytelling, his projects range from building the world’s largest time capsule to documenting an Alaskan Eskimo whale hunt on the Arctic Ocean.
Phylotaxis was/is an impressive piece of work and his output has continued to impress since – however a year later he released a new work named ‘We Feel Fine’ which set out to be ‘ an exploration of human emotion.’
“It continually harvests sentences containing the phrase “I feel” or “I am feeling” from the Internet’s newly posted blog entries, saves them in a database, and displays them in an interactive Java applet, which runs in a web browser. Each dot represents a single person’s feeling. We Feel Fine collects around 15,000 new feelings per day, and has saved over 13 million feelings since 2005, forming a constantly evolving portrait of human emotion.”
Just released is a book which is based on the project, We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion. With lush, colorful spreads devoted to 50 feelings, 13 cities, 10 topics, 6 holidays, 5 age groups, 4 weather conditions, and 2 genders, We Feel Fine explores our emotions from every angle, providing insights into and examples of each. Equal parts pop culture and psychology, computer science and conceptual art, sociology and storytelling, It is a radical experiment in mass authorship, merging the online and offline worlds to create an indispensable handbook for anyone interested in what it’s like to be human.
Check out the interactive, installation and print versions of this amazing project at ‘We Feel Fine’.
Zooming user interfaces or zoomable user interfaces (ZUI, pronounced zoo‐ee) are not exactly a new concept in the field of HCI/IXD. A ZUI could generally be defined as a graphical environment where users can change the scale of the viewed area in order to see more detail or less, and browse through different documents or objects. Despite all the work and research carried out in the space over the years the ZUI has had somewhat limited success. Indeed the finding of an effective and if you excuse the pun, scalable solution has proved somewhat elusive. That is not to say that ZUIs haven’t been effectively implemented in certain scenarios, indeed success stories such as Google Maps, Microsoft Labs Seadragon and Prezi have capitalised on the obvious benefits of effective applications of zoomable interfaces.
The term itself was coined by one Franklin Servan‐Schreiber while working for the Sony Research Lab in partnership with Ben Bederson and Ken Perlin. One of the longest running efforts to create a ZUI has been the Pad++ project started by Ken Perlin, Jim Hollan, and Ben Bederson at New York University and continued at the University of New Mexico under Hollan’s direction. More recent ZUI efforts include Archy by the late Jef Raskin, and the simple ZUI of the Squeak Smalltalk programming environment and language. Bederson developed Jazz and later Piccolo at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is still actively being developed in Java and C#.
ZUIs use zooming as the main metaphor for browsing through hyperlinked information. Objects are presented within a zoomed page or canvas and can in turn be zoomed themselves to reveal further detail, allowing for recursive nesting and an arbitrary level of zoom.
A good introductory read is the late great Jef Raskins passage on ZoomWorld in his seminal HCI tome The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems, in which he discussed his idea of using the ZUI as a solution to the navigational dilemma for users. It’s also worth noting that he spent the latter stages of his career working on implementations of this new UI paradigm with his research team.
Dr Ben Shneiderman, another noted researcher in the HCI field made the following observation, which nicely encapsulates the lure of zoomable interfaces:
“Humans can recognize the spatial configuration of elements in a picture and notice relationships among elements quickly. This highly developed visual system means people can grasp the content of a picture much faster than they can scan and understand text. Interface designers can capitalize on this by shifting some of the cognitive load of information retrieval to the perceptual system. By appropriately coding properties by size, position, shape, and color, we can greatly reduce the need for explicit selection, sorting, and scanning operations.”
The potential benefits of ZUIs are well-documented and as previously mentioned recent applications such as PREZI and Microsofts DeepZoom technology have nicely demonstrated certain use cases in which ZUIs are a viable and cognitively acceptable model. However the shortcomings are also well-documented with the most commonly cited bête noire being a phenomena commonly referred to as ‘Desert Fog’. This occurs when a person becomes disorientated whilst using a zoomable interface and loses track of where they are, which could be confusing for the user, which likely leads to frustration and ultimately results in the abandonment of whatever task it was they were trying to carry out. The user no longer has any on-screen landmarks or cues upon which to work out where they are. Unquestionably, this is a worse situation than most everyday/orthodox interfaces where at the very least a user can often infer the context of their operations by looking at what is on screen. With the presence of ‘desert fog’ within ZUIs, there is nothing on screen to aid this inference, and so a user is left in a proverbial ‘no-mans land’. Wayfaring, assistive navigational maps and various other interface features have been employed in order to address this undesirable scenario albeit with somewhat varying degrees of success. Perhaps seeking a singular solution is the incorrect approach, with the ZUI conundrum proving it could be a case of ‘One Size Fits Some’.
Every now and then however a demonstration or an advancement in technology comes along which reignites the buzz for zoomable interfaces, yesterday I happened upon one of these demos which actually inspired me to write this little piece. At this years CESA Developers Conference in Japan Sony revealed an upcoming technology which will be available shortly as an SDK to developers for both the PS3 and the PSP. Sony have christened it High-Resolution Image Enlargement Technology, and despite the rather long-winded name it does not fail to impress. When I watched the demonstration video I was taken aback with the speed and ease at which the system was able to handle such resolution-intensive content.
The video below showcases a number of the demonstrations – the main demo appears to be a release calendar which inside each entry, contains high-resolution photos or a video of whatever is being released that particular day. Make sure you stick around for the mosquito – it’s quite impressive. This is a genuinely astounding piece of technology that could well enable some pretty cool software applications, however the real selling-point for me is that is will be available on widely used consumer products.
Perhaps the ‘desert fog’ may lift sooner than expected.
To user interface & icon designers everywhere Susan Kare needs no introduction, it was she who designed the icons for the first Macintosh. Through her friend Andy Hertzfeld (a member of the original Mac team) she came to work at Apple after receiving a Ph.D. in fine art from New York University. In 1983 she joined the Macintosh software group and went on to create all of the original Mac’s icons and UI elements. From the ubiqutous trash bin, watch, pouring paint can and bomb icons to the portrait of a computer with a sly Mona Lisa smile, her work has graced desktops all across the world.
Which brings us to the story of the ‘The Steve Icon’; one day way back in February 1983 Susan Kare was busy creating icons for the Finder. Those were simple icons, only 32 by 32 black or white pixels or 1024 dots in total. It was said Kare would also draw lots of other images as well, for either practice or just for fun, usually reflecting her somewhat playful sense of humor. Then in the spur of the moment she took it upon herself to start drawing a portrait of Steve Jobs – no small task within such a tiny space, but somehow Susan succeeded in crafting an instantly recognizable likeness with a mischevious grin that captured a lot of Steve’s personality. It was reported that Jobs himself approved of the icon. Before long other members of the Mac team came to Susan requesting that they too be forever immortalised in 32 by 32 pixels – it became a Mac team status symbol to be iconified.
Kare left Apple around the same time as Jobs and went on to become the 10th employee at his new company NeXT – where she undertook the role of creative director. One of her first projects was to oversee the design of the NeXT logo for which she hired her idol the great Paul Rand. Nowadays as a freelance user interface graphic designer, she works for some of the biggest tech companies in the world including Electronic Arts, Facebook, IBM, Sony Pictures, Motorola and Microsoft. In recent interviews she has stated that over the past 10 years, she has drawn more than 2,000 icons.
No mean feat – even for the lady who had a hand in making Steve Jobs an icon, in both a metaphorical and a literal sense.