Recently I gave a lecture on human-computer interaction in my New Technology course. This is a very interesting topic and after some research to prepare for the lecture, I realized how our current user interface, keyboard, and mouse, is outdated and limited. The mouse is so dominant as our main input device that it limits our thinking about how we can really interact with computers. However, we are right now at a tipping point in new user interface design and we will see interesting changes in the coming years.
The starting point of my talk was to look at the typical desktop PCs as we know them today. This would be a typical computer box connected to a screen, keyboard, and mouse. The Graphical User Interfaces or GUI metaphor used in today’s major operating system use was invented in the 1970s by Xerox. This was later copied and commercialized by Apple with the Macintosh computer released in 1984. Since then the desktop metaphor has become the mainstream way for us to organize our files and documents.
Is the desktop metaphor really the best way to organize data? It sounds like files – documents in an office where you have folders, file cabinets, and business processes to organize the flow of documents. To provide structure everything is organized in hierarchical order – a tree. But is this the way we want to see our stuff? What about music, movies, and pictures? Do we place these at our desk and then file them in a folder in our filing cabinet? The point is that this old desktop metaphor was invented by and for office people who work in offices. As computers become consumer products for social interactions, games, and consumption of entertainment content this metaphor becomes restrictive. And the world is not like a tree.
The question then is how will we interact with computers in the next few years? Is the desktop metaphor getting replaced and with what? What input devices will we use? The mouse is pretty limited if you think about it. And if you think about the desktop metaphor with a 2D space of overlapping windows, surely there must be some other ways in organizing your data.
To get out of the box, Bill Buxon talks about Natural Users Interfaces:
Microsoft has done interesting things with surface computing. However, this still remains to become more widespread.
Another challenging video comes from Clayton Miller and his 10GUI group (see story on Singularity Hub). In this video we see some innovative ideas to interact with computers using multitouch. Instead of a desktop based way to organize windows, his Con10uum ideas arrange windows in a linear way across the screen.
The recent iPad announcement by Apple is another example of new ways to interact with computes. A hand-held multitouch device, the iPad and similar tablet computers can change how we experience computing. The iPad was not only designed as a great multimedia viewing device but also a new way to interact with applications where the main input is touch. Comparing the iPad to a desktop office metaphor is surly a mistake since this is radically different approach to computer design.
All these examples remind us that the desktop metaphor is only one way to organize content. New ideas and new innovations in data organizing are coming. Also, the desktop is an office-like metaphor while computers are becoming consumer devices with entertainment and communications as the main tasks.