Archive for the ‘design’ Category

Imaginary tablets

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010
Imaginary tablets
[posting this now as text-only; will upload photos of my prototypes shortly]
For those of us interested in how humans interact with our machines, how socio-technical systems are made and how they make us, this is a precious moment. Tomorrow the probability waveforms collapse, Schroedinger’s cat will be let out of the bag; Apple will reveal the form of their long-rumoured slate. In the realisation of a new kind of computing device many decisions are made. Not many companies are equipped to make and execute those decisions well. At the moment I can think of two: Apple and Palm. And as Palm is otherwise engaged, it falls to Apple to bring us the first fully-realised such device.
That’s why today, the moment before the Apple tablet is unveiled, is precious. From tomorrow it will be impossible to imagine a slate without reference to Apple’s design, just as now all smartphones are compared to the iPhone.
The iPhone is Alan Kay’s Dynabook in the deck-of-cards form factor. Now Apple are ready to make the full-sized version; the paperback form factor. Kay put it at 8 by 5 inches – 10 inches diagonally. The size of a small paperback book, or a sheet of A4 folded in half (which is to say, A5). We know that this form factor is important. But it’s been hard to stop thinking of computers as anything other than television-typewriters.
The TV-typewriter form factor has found its epitome in the laptop as we know it: hinged keyboard-and-screen, trackpad and desktop metaphor. Shall I enumerate its faults? Too big and fragile to carry in an ordinary bag, we must instead heft special laptop bags with padded compartments and room for little else. Too energy-hungry for sustained use away from power. A screen that doesn’t work in sunlight. Too heavy to use while carrying. When equipped with processors fast enough to run a modern desktop operating system and 3D graphics, it’s too hot to actually use on a lap. The laptop is wonderfully portable, but not truly mobile.
The A5 dynabook won’t be better for all tasks. However it will afford different activities to those afforded by the laptop, desktop workstation and handheld device, and thereby expand the range of human creativity. That makes it exciting.
However Apple’s version will have its own affordances and constraints. It will be optimised for certain tasks; there’s more than one way to skin a universal computing device. From tomorrow we are in danger of forgetting that.
I’m conducting PhD research into creativity support tools, through a process of building and testing prototypes. Some of the prototypes have been slates, of various shapes and sizes. Form factors made from foamcore, weighted with aluminium; interactivity simulated with my (jailbroken) iPhone. I’ve been carrying them around and imagining how they fit into various scenarios. Here are some things I’ve learnt:
1. Size & Weight, and thus Connectivity
– 7-inch tablets beat 10-inch for portability. You can fit one in a coat pocket or a purse. But they’re small enough that  you can actually lose one. You’ll want a GPS tracker in that thing.
– Say a 10-inch tablet is 500g, splitting the difference of four iPhones or iPods Touch. That’s the weight of a medium-sized book, and much less than a laptop. For example a Macbook Air is 1360 g and a 15” Macbook Pro is 2490 g. That weight is great for portability and reading, but for one-handed interactivity you actually want lighter. The lighter you go, the more you can do and the more likely you are to carry it around. No hard drive. A Flash drive is light enough. For longevity put a memory card slot in the thing; then as memory prices plummet it’ll keep getting more useful. When costing this thing out for engineering, the primary cost you care about isn’t dollars, it’s weight.
– The most effective way to lose weight is to put things outside the tablet.  Files, and also processing. Voice recognition, 3D, video editing: control them from the tablet, but do the processing somewhere else. You should be able to control a desktop workstation from this, and also invisibly use all kinds of services that run on remote servers. This implies full-time connectivity; not just wifi but 3G and whatever comes next. It doesn’t matter how you get the connectivity there: people will still carry phones so tethering is an option.
2. Colour and Form
A black bezel is a terrible idea for e-reading; you want a white margin around a page of text. Ideally the margin is interactive and can hold annotations anyway, so you just want all screen. If there has to be a bezel, make it as seamless as possible (and possibly accepting touch input). If there’s a rim, it should be white or silver.
3. Keyboard & Other Inputs
– A 10-inch tablet can fit a full-size on-screen keyboard in landscape orientation.
– Typing on a full-size keyboard with one hand is a pain. Set it down on a surface and it works. Or turn the slate to portrait, and you have a keyboard that you can use with one hand while you hold the slate with the other.
– If you’re writing long documents, a bluetooth keyboard is fantastic.
– Enable other input devices too. Game controllers, motion sensors, everything. Artists want a stylus for pressure-sensitivity. More inputs multiply possibilities. But ensure that you can use the stock configuration with multitouch alone, because every input is also a dependency.
4. Collaboration
– A slate in a meeting room is nothing like a laptop in a meeting room. A laptop naturally faces the user; a slate naturally goes face-up on the desk. If you flip it up for privacy then it’s obvious that’s what you’re doing. So:
– Slates afford information sharing in meetings. Sketch, pass it around the table. And here we find an implication for design.
Design problem:
In meetings sketching is a common form of expression and communication for creative ideation. When teleconferencing, remote participants are either left out of this sketching process, or it stops.
Opportunity:
Tablets can help, because digital sketches can be transmitted between locations. Draw on a tablet here, have it appear on a tablet there. The remote participants can then add to or annotate the sketch; communication is enhanced and the flow of collaborative ideation is unbroken. Win!
Extension:
People also like to sketch with concrete tools (pencil and paper, arrangements of sticky notes, whiteboards, butcher’s paper etc). Tablets could have a camera or even a full-surface scanner, and thereby capture those analog sketches in digital format. This affords greater sharing with remote participants, review and archiving of materials, and with OCR and metadata, search & retrieval.
5. Capture & annotation
This leads me to an affordance I haven’t fully understood yet: slates afford rich annotation. You need a responsive screen: e-ink won’t do, but a Pixel-Qi transflective or something similar is ideal. But if you have that, then you can capture images, either by drawing or photographing. And then you can start to annotate the images, directly manipulating them on the device. The surface is large enough to work with, and the infinite depth afforded by zoom means there is plenty of room. Every image can be a rabbithole; a portal to an information space without inherent limit. 10 inches in the diagonal, and infinity in the z-axis.
Right. I have more, but it’s unformed. Let’s hope that after 5 AM Sydney time tomorrow I can still think clearly about imaginary tablets as well as the real.

For those of us interested in how humans interact with our machines, how socio-technical systems are made and how they make us, this is a precious moment. Tomorrow the probability waveforms collapse, Schroedinger’s cat will be let out of the bag; Apple will reveal the form of their long-rumoured slate. In the realisation of a new kind of computing device many decisions are made. Not many companies are equipped to make and execute those decisions well. At the moment I can think of two: Apple and Palm. And as Palm is otherwise engaged, it falls to Apple to bring us the first fully-realised such device.

That’s why today, the moment before the Apple tablet is unveiled, is precious. From tomorrow it will be impossible to imagine a slate without reference to Apple’s design, just as now all smartphones are compared to the iPhone.

Mockups in scale

Mockups in scale

So before it’s too late, here’s what I’ve learned from six months living with iSlate prototypes.

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Reclaiming Affordances

Friday, November 20th, 2009

The next time you are about to use the word “affordance”, please stop and check if the word “cue” would work instead.

Because if it would, then:
1. you are using an obscure technical term for something that already has a perfectly good plain English word, and
2. you are using that technical term incorrectly.

Yes, I know that languages are living entities. None other than the eminent Don Norman, despairing in his attempts to correct the misuse of “affordances”, has cited this as a reason to abandon the term to its abusers. Yes, words can change their meanings. Generally, I celebrate this fact. But not this time. Technical terms are different. People can start calling air “Oxygen”, but that does not mean that scientists should change the periodic table.

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Prior Art

Friday, September 25th, 2009

So apparently Rupert Murdoch thinks he owns the idea of an Electronic Programme Guide that uses a grid layout, as he bought a company with a patent from the year 1999 to that effect. And for the last decade this company has been extracting fealty hither and yon, in the form of license agreements to anyone who wants to put up a service to tell people what’s on telly, and suing them if they demur. And now Freeview Australia seems to be having some trouble securing a license.

It looks like this is the Gemstar patent.

The reason I write is that I was working for Optus Multimedia, a division of Optus Vision back in 1998, and in that year I made an EPG in a grid layout, for delivery on the web (including a WebTV version).

So without further ado, here is some prior art for EPGs with a grid layout, from May 1998.

 Note: grid layout, customise button for changing order of channels, and tiny WebTV-compatible resolution

Note: grid layout, customise button for changing order of channels, and tiny WebTV-compatible resolution

The longer it takes you to catch on, the more visionary I get

Monday, August 31st, 2009

[With apologies to Bruce Sterling]

Take a look at the wonderful Immersive Workspaces from Linden Lab and Rivers Run Red. Wonderful because it’s a great piece of work and a real breakthrough, but also because it’s not done yet. That is, if its goal is as stated “a complete collaboration solution”, and “the ultimate destination in real-time collaboration”.

Immersive Workspaces - viewing slides in a meeting room

Immersive Workspaces - avatars view slides in a virtual meeting room

You see, what they’ve built looks like a great solution for real-time communication and coordination – but that’s not the same thing as collaboration. Let’s take a look. I’ll wait here while you watch the the video [link updated].

The system provides the following task-oriented headings: News, Team, Meetings, Actions, Media, Journal, Stats, Admin, and Go 3D. This is looking like the next generation of groupware, with that last link promising a sprinkle of social avatar-chat sugar on top, courtesy of Second Life.

The use case shown is called a “collaboration session” – but let’s look at what the participants (Laura, Adam and Sakura) actually do.

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Tap tap tap – a case study for distributed collaborative creativity.

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Taptaptap make iPhone apps, but they’re not an old-fashioned development shop. Times have changed.

We have no central office and everyone involved is in a different part of the world.

They’re a cross-disciplinary, geographically distributed team. Which raises the question:

So how do we work efficiently on our projects?

They tried asynchronous work but then started getting better results with synchronous chat sessions, sending images back and forth. Then breakthrough – they introduced a shared workspace, which they describe as a virtual room. It’s one-way and ad-hoc, but it’s working. And there is definitely a design opportunity for better creativity support tools in this space.

Ad-hoc workspace sharing prototype

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

I’ve been IKEA-hacking. There’s a great community that does this for real – do you think mine counts? I’ll explain first.

I recently posted an idea for ad-hoc workspace sharing for under $US 500/person. The idea is simple: get one of the new LED-based micro projectors, tape it to a webcam and point them at a surface. Then everything the camera sees can be projected back onto the same surface, or more interestingly to a remote setup along the same lines. Now two people at different locations can share a workspace.

When figuring out how to prototype this, I then thought of the ubiquitous angle-poise task lamp. Apparently Anglepoise is actually a brand, which I did not know – it’s the true original, designed by George Carwardine in the UK in 1934. It’s this lamp that Jac Jacobsen found in a shipment of sewing machines, licensed and redesigned in 1937, resulting in the classic Luxo L-1 luminaire. Some version of this architects’ lamp then inspired John Lasseter to animate Luxo Jr., the short film that became the spirit of Pixar.

Now, I’m going for low-cost, ad-hoc and ubiquitous. I’m not going to use a $200 Luxo L-1 or Anglepoise Original 1227. Not unless I find a new source of funding, anyway 😉 In any case, it’s more appropriate for me to use the most low-cost, ubiquitous version of this superbly functional modern design: IKEA’s TERTIAL. $18.95 from my local IKEA in Sydney, $8.99 in the US.

The height is perfect to throw a 30cm/12″ diagonal display from the 3M MPRO110 Micro Projector, and if you remove the lamp assembly the projector fits beautifully in its place, with room to spare for a webcam. Here’s my blueprint and a shot of the design in situ. If you make one too, we can try them out.
TERTIAL blueprint Tertial Augmented Workspace

Next is to design and implement some user interaction methods. One quite nice thing is that the field of view of the camera is wider than the lightfield of the projector. This means that we can use the projected area for direct manipulation of things in the mediaspace, and use the area around it as a gestural interaction zone for anything that effects the mediaspace as a whole. Some sketches:

rosegarden1.jpgRose garden interaction sketch 2

Ad-hoc workspace sharing for under $US 500 per person

Monday, April 6th, 2009

BT-1 Wireless webcam: $US 149

and

3M MPRO110 Micro Projector: $US 300

= $USD 449 (= $AUD 626) plus something for shipping.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pt1_4Hr_-FA

Tape them together, point them at a surface in arm’s reach, set up a screen-sharing videoconference with someone else with the same setup, and you can share a projected workspace. Cheap, fast and adaptable.

Cool toys at the Games Studio

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

I’m in the UTS Games Studio, the denizens of which are demonstrating the cool toys we have there. First is Leena who has embedded various i-cubex sensors in a teddy bear (well, a dog, but she admonishes us to ignore that), a tennis racket any glove. All of these are generating audio at the moment. Greg and Daniel have been playing with our MERL Touchtable. This is a multi-user multitouch display table; its special capability is that it can distinguish between four users. Other touch tables can support lots of users and touches, but can’t tell who is who. They’ve made a simple but very engaging game called Ball Fight that used this capability nicely. The CCS mob is getting quite excited by the artistic possibilities ^_^

The Hyper-Seal

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

The seal of the Vice President of the United States, like that of the President, is protected under 18 USC Sec. 713 – you CAN NOT HAZ, at least if you’re subject to US law. I suppose that this is why the seal was not in the backdrop behind the candidates at the Vice-Presidential debate held today.

To use or to simulate the seal is not permitted… but why merely simulate, when you can beat reality at its own game? Enter the hyperreal.
Hyperseal

Or indeed, the hyper-seal. Forget staid heraldry. This shield is a 3D object protruding into the space. Not a depiction, a virtualisation.  The eagle is… surfing on the shield? Surmounting it, anyway, and crushing the arrows and the olive branch beneath its talons. Instead of “E Puribus Unum” (Out of Many, One), we have THE UNION AND THE CONSTITUTION FOREVER, like a sailor’s tattoo.

This eagle says I MADED YOU A GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE BY THE PEOPLE FOR THE PEOPLE BUT I EATED IT.

AIMIA Web 3.0 & Visualisation event

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Looks like I’m going to be presenting at this – will have to make some killer slides…