Bad Remote

I saw this at Ray and Rachel’s house the other day. They had stuck the stickers on for Ray’s dad, but the point is that the interface should have been better designed in the first place.

Strangely enough I had just come from someone else’s house that had “TV”, “DVD”, “Video” stickers on all the remotes too.

Reactable cacophony

Evidently Reactable has been around for a couple of years, but I hadn’t heard about it until one of my ex-students, Gabi, sent me the link.

Undoubtedly Reactable is a really great implementation of a tangible interface and it is also plugging into the whole multi-touch mania (although it’s a completely different system – it uses a camera to track the faces and orientation of the objects).

I’m just slightly disappointed to see them using it to create that kind of electronica synth noise blinky-blonk stuff again. If you create a new interface, it’s worth thinking about how it means you can do things differently to before. For me the actual audio they are producing could still be a couple of guys behind laptops on Reason or something similar.

It’s great to see the collaborative abilities of it, but again, same result. Interestingly one of the creators says in the Berlin video (the one above) that they created it from a concept rather than the technology, unlike many other technology heavy projects.

I think this is often a really good approach, especially for things that have another ‘purpose’ behind the interface (like YouTube, etc. which is about sharing content, not the interface necessarily). But sometimes, especially when trying to develop new interactive paradigms, it’s more suitable to work from the technology outwards. I don’t mean the kind of awful computer science kind of projects, which are totally cold. I mean a kind of balance in the middle where you are playing with the technologies to see what inherent properties and language it has. That way you can find out new ways of thinking and doing and interacting.

Max/MSP looks like this

Often starting from a concept means that you’re basing your concept on previous paradigms – in the case of Reactable, that’s all those Max/MSP patch style audio applications. They’ve pretty much substituted the boxes and lines for, well, real boxes and virtual lines.

Maybe they just need to play with Reactable more to work out what it can do. You can take a look at more of their videos on YouTube.

Bubble Sequencer

Bubble Sequencer

Adding to the ever-growing list of things that my ex-students now do much better than I, Karl D. D. Willis is working on a playful new project called Bubble Sequencer. Bubble Sequencer uses the flow of bubbles through pipes to trigger notes set by lighting up LEDs – the bubbles work like kind of playback heads, or like a pianola roll. It’s easier to understand from the video.

I wrote recently about Karl’s win at the Tokyo Type Director’s club with his Light Tracer project. He’s pushed that project a long way, but it’s nice to see him working on something new.

It’s very Japanese I feel (and where Karl lives at the moment) – there are shades of Toshio Iwai in there I think and, let’s face it, he inspired all of us. I think there is probably more to be explored here too, but I’m sure he’ll be doing that.

Multiperson multi-touch interface

A while ago I wrote about Jeff Han’s multi-touch interface and of course it got a lot of attention off the back of the iphone’s similar interface.

Han since spun off a company called Perceptive Pixel and below is the latest version of his multi-touch interface. It’s much bigger and, more impressively, it can handle two people working on it at once. Again, I still wonder what computing power is behind this and how expensive it all is, but you can imagine some very interesting collaborative processes happening. He needs to let some children loose on it too.

(Thanks Danielle and itsartmag)

Apple iPhone

Apple's iPhone

I’m going to join what will be an enormous club and blog about Apple’s iPhone. I nearly didn’t, just to not follow the crowd, but given my interest is in emerging technologies, interactivity and interface design I really need to.

So, well, it is amazing of course just as a great piece of product design and technology. It’s great to see a full-screen device that ditches buttons as well as many of the multi-touch interface ideas that Jeff Han has been working on for some time. I’ve been waiting to see these ideas in an everyday product.

Running OS X, with its attention to detail and multimodal ways of working, is also very positive. But the main thing is that it could completely change the landscape of mobiles.

Completely change the landscape?
Yes. When I was chatting the folks at Fjord about some of the work they’ve been doing in the mobile space (incidentally Fjord have just finished this project, Go, for Yahoo! ) I had a thought about the ridiculous range of mobiles, even from one company. Apple have been smart with the iPod in the way they have kept the concept roughly the same even as they make new versions. Nokia, for example, might be much better off not segmenting the market but rather creating a really decent range of maybe two or three phones and then just keep simplifying them. That’s the Apple model and that’s what they have done with the iPhone.

Additionally, the Wi-Fi, the most likely very easy Apple-style manner of setting up your connections will also get over the big bugbear of mobile devices – namely that they’re such an incredible pain in the arse to set up if you want to do any kind of decent network communication.

Some of the user-interface elements (like the multi-touch and drag and throw style interaction) might seem small, but those things have been huge and permanent hurdle to people using mobile services.

Lastly, it’s probably reasonably easy to make nice apps for the iPhone, especially given the widget-style interface. This opens it up to a great deal more innovative development than on current mobiles.

There are probably many more things to be added to this list and probably some downsides, but I’ll have to get hold of one first…

An Interface Too Far

The BumpTop interface

I was interested to see this video on YouTube for the BumpTop interface that mimics a ‘real’ desktop. Interested but disappointed.

The whole idea of a desktop metaphor is that it is a metaphor not the real thing. There are things about a real desktop that I really don’t like, like piles and piles of stuff to sift through. I realise that it is an interesting route to go down to try and emulate some of the physical signals of piles of paper (i.e. that one on the top at right angles is really important). But the solution isn’t to make it look more real.

BumpTop ends up creating more problems than it solves and seeing that it comes out of the Dynamic Graphics Project from the University of Toronto’s Computer Science department part of the reason why. It’s a great example of why you shouldn’t let computer scientists loose on interface design.

Granted, it is quite slick and cute, but it misses the point. I don’t need my visual metaphor to be given greater attention (all those little icons bouncing around like books). What is needed is metaphor of intention and Apple’s Exposé in OS X has already claimed that major leap in GUI design and most of the good parts of BumpTop.

What struck me about Exposé when I first used it was that it didn’t break the workflow (actually it enhanced it) whilst it did break the desktop metaphor. In the real world I can put documents into folders and sort them, etc. but I can’t make them all expand from a pile and hover in front of me and then ping back to a pile once I have chosen one. I struggled to work out why that was for a while and then it struck me that this is a metaphor for another kind of action, but it’s more about intention than the realism of the action. When you rifle through papers, half lifting the edges of a stack of magazines, for example, you get enough information to recognise the thing you want. Often that’s just the colour or a part of an image or a single word or two. You drag it out of the middle of the pile without unravelling everything and drop the edges back down again.

So that part is quite similar to the action of displaying all your open documents in Exposé, albeit a bit more abstracted in the GUI, which is again the point of a GUI. The ability to clear your ‘desk’ of everything magically and then have it all back in the order it was again is one of intention – something you’d love to be able to do in real life, but can’t. If you get that right, you have a great GUI. If you focus on the literal translation of the real world then, well, you get all it’s problems.

In their paper the BumpTop authors, Anand Agarawala and Ravin Balakrishnan, realise this at the very end:

Like the GUI desktop, our prototype runs into problems when the number of items gets large. As Whittaker et al. (2001) found, “the main limitation of [piling] was that it did not scale well: pilers found difficulties accessing information once piles had begun to multiply. We intend to explore extensions that might deviate somewhat from the physical piling metaphor but benefit from leveraging the underlying computer.

That’ll be the abstraction of a GUI they’re after. Here is a totally different example of something simple working very well indeed (and okay, they’re computer scientists too, can’t you tell by the thrilling presentation techniques?):

(That last one via Knotty).

p.s. For the anal and academically minded, that Whittaker reference above is: Whittaker, S. & Hirschberg, J. (2001). The character, value, and management of personal paper archives. ACM Trans on CHI, 8(2). p. 150-170