Human Computer Interaction

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and after some research to prepare for the lecture, I realized how our current user interface, keyboard and mouse, is outdated and limited.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 a 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 an 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, surly the 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.

10/GUI from C. Miller on Vimeo.

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.

The Prevailing Technology Trap

Digital book readers have the possibles to improve books in innovative ways.

(Apple iPad picture found on cnet.com)

Apple last week released its version of a tablet, the iPad. While it looks like an elegant device, it is similar to other hand-held screen computers. Like with the iPod, the real innovations will likely be the associated software services like the bookstore introduced. This confirms my belief that printed books are about the get disrupted by digital books. Apple’s e-reader software takes experience of reading paper books to the digital format. While it is clever to take a familiar model people know and replicate it on-line, it can restrict innovative use of new technology.

Technology cramming is when products that were invented with one technology get crammed into new technology. There are many examples of technology cramming. The first cars looked like stagecoaches, the first online newspapers looked like printed newspapers. And now digital books in ereaders look like printed books.

The reason for this is what I call The Prevailing Technology Trap. Current and dominant technology will highly influence new innovation, and can even restrict them. Innovators are so influenced by the current technologies that they will try to work according to them, including their limitations.

Even Alexander Bell was not trying to invent the telephone. He was trying to improve the telegraph, the prevailing communication technology at the time.

The digital e-readers with the on-line Internet services have many possibilities to improve books. Books are traditionally linear stream of text. Some books have media items like still pictures. With digital books these restrictions don’t apply. Textbooks for example can have hyperlinks to further explanations, embedded videos, and cross-references. Many Internet news stories have links directly to their sources.

With digital books, text can even be in different sizes and depth, for differentiated learning. Consider a textbook that is in a compact mode. It will have a short and concise text with all major points. In expanded mode it will contain more explanations and examples, and in elaborate mode it might have several case studies to explain concepts in more depth. Students can choose which version to read. A quick review for an exam might for example favor the compact mode. Stories can also be more flexible in storytelling. What if you could read a book in different paths? Or digress into another story or a subplot before continuing with the main story.

With digital books, new possibilities emerge. As the new digital format of books matures we will see books escape the limitations of the printed format and truly become a new experience.

New Technology Course 2010

Beginning this year, I will start the 2010 version of my New Technology course. This is a course I teach at Reykjavík University. It is about the study of technology and the impact of technology on societies, industries, companies and people. It is also about the theories and law behind how technology evolves.

What is interesting about teaching this are all the lessons we have learned from history. There are numerous examples of how good and well-run companies fail to see the potential of new technology and lose their market shares to new entrants to the market. Even if the management recognizes the need for change to new business models they still fail.

The course description is found here: New Technology 2010.pdf

Beginning this year also marks the move to a new location. The picture below shows my workspace in our new building: