A couple weeks ago I was at dinner with some friends. At some point, talking about recent trips, people wanted to see pictures. As iPhones ware passed around (always a little worried that swiping to the next photo might reveal something not intended to be shared), we realized that we could exchange photos with Apple’s new AirDrop feature. While this was pretty cool, the technology wasn’t seamless, and didn’t work for everyone. So the conversation took a detour into settings and configurations screens. The joy of sharing devolved into an IT lesson where some people got confused and frustrated. We eventually put our phones away and switched topics.
We know we use technology constantly our daily lives, both individually and socially. But the event also illustrated how far we still have to go to invent something that’s both powerful and effortless.
This is especially true with our mobile devices. We rely on them as memory aids and as ways to enhance conversations by introducing new content. Talking about a movie we look up the director to see what else they did; we take a note of a book that a friend recommends; we check the reviews to find a restaurant when we’re in an unfamiliar neighborhood. The devices give us access to virtually infinite content; but as we use them, our attention to our surroundings, and the people we’re with, diminishes. Conversations take a pause. We get distracted.
With human factors and design research we know to design interfaces that are based on user needs and take into account the contexts in which they’re used. For example, a running app has larger buttons so it’s easier to hit when running; and a navigation app reduces information clutter to prevent driver distraction.
But these are instances of interfaces designed for specialized contexts. It’s when we use general-purpose apps in unintended environments that we get into trouble. And it ranges from real danger, such as when using your phone while driving, to minor distraction, such as looking up some information while at dinner.
For the “danger” category, there’s lots of work being done trying to find individual design solutions that are safer. But what about the “distraction” category? Is there a better way to weave general purpose connectivity into our lives? I’m not claiming to have any solutions, but bear with me as I do a bit of a ramble (and link in some previous posts)…
One approach is through augmentation. There’s a lot of talk of how augmented reality can aid manufacturing, and there are plenty of one-off advertising toys. But I can’t think of many examples of general purpose apps that use augmentation. Perhaps Yelp’s Monacle or Nokia’s City Lens? But these examples are still fairly specialized (they help you explore a city) and don’t especially facilitate social interaction.
Google Glass takes augmentation in the opposite direction, skipping social entirely, and focusing on just the wearer. While there are some interesting design opportunities, the technology feels like a backwards step — it’s inward looking, increases isolation, and discourages sharing. Taking this to the extreme, Domestic Robocop (and Augmented City) projects an absurd possibility of this future.
The introduction of the iPad was a interesting advance for social interfaces for it freed us from the desktop. Because it was portable, it could be used almost anywhere. And, because it had a larger display, multiple people could look at it simultaneously.
There have been a couple specialized apps that treat the iPad like a multi-user device. Cotracks, for example, lets multiple people make music together. And Scrabble connects the iPad to each player’s iPhone for multi-user and multi-device play.
But, we’re not yet all carrying around iPads and placing them out in the middle of the table. And while it’s larger and more social than a mobile phone, it doesn’t scale well for more than a couple of people.
What if we stepped away from the idea of individual & personal devices? What about larger-scaled technology — stuff that’s built into our environment?
Well, technology that’s built into the environment tends to date quickly and be expensive to update. And there are plenty of challenges to designing for sharable technology which would also know your preferences and link to your networks. But there are some interaction examples that are noteworthy and from which maybe we can learn.
Microsoft’s Surface Table (now called PixelSense) is a touch-sensitive display, usually mounted as a table , around which people can gather, and that recognizes objects placed on it. It’s a nice, and relatively seamless, way for the display to connect to the real world. It aims to support natural user interface (NUI) design principles so that the interface effectively becomes invisible to users.
But the Surface Table never really took off. It was expensive, had too specific a form factor, and there were few applications that really took advantage of the new design principles that the technology offered. Samsung now offers a larger, more flexible and powerful version.
Other real-world examples of technology built into environments tends to be in support of fairly constrained use-cases — not the general purpose functionality hinted at with Surface. For example, high-end video conferencing systems such as Cisco, Halo, and Oblong, build technology into meeting spaces. (Media:scape is in somewhat more natural environments.) They let you bring your content and provide ways to structure and work with it. While they’re built around meeting taxonomies, they might be expanded and generalized for other ways in which we share.
For non-business examples, I think back to more specialized things like the dining tables at Inamo and Barneys. Inamo’s is quite narrow in its use, really just being a way to order food. The Barneys table also gives you food and fashion content, appropriate to when you’re in their store shopping. But both are still solitary interfaces, without means to share with your fellow diners.
Looking at future technology, stuff still in the concept and research phases, we see the emergence of some pretty powerful ideas that could support more general-purpose activities.
“Projection-lights,” such as Berg Lamps and LuminAR (among others), look at how we might be able to build projection and gesture recognition into our everyday world. It nice thinking about how we could get away from screens and have information displayed seamlessly anywhere we may need it. Berg’s explorations of how projection exists as a design medium, and the general rules for “smart light”, are especially interesting. This, combined with all of our devices being connected as part of an internet of things, seems full of exciting possibilities.
Science fiction interfaces, as well as vision films, portray future scenarios and how new technologies could be incorporated into our everyday world. They actually are closest to portraying a future where information seamlessly is part of the everyday context. But, as Scott Smith pointed out, these films often “show our lives as simplified and passive, with technologies that magically anticipate our needs.” They show solutions to specific problems — not overall new interface approaches.
Back to where I started
I think my last post, about food and dining, was partly to blame for all this talk. I wanted a restaurant where I could share with my fellow diners, and also get content that would enhance my dining experience. But now I want something more generalized. I want new ways for us to get and share information. Ways that are transparent and seamless. Ways that don’t distract or cause us to loose the human connections we have with others.
This post isn’t about solutions… technology, and our expectations of it, change too fast. Instead it’s about challenges and opportunities. This post also isn’t intended to cover all the research that’s happening in this field — as there’s lots, with a great and deep history. Instead, hopefully it’s also about how the future can be much more than what we currently have. And it’s a reminder that we need to continue designing new interaction paradigms.