Dramatic Innovation: we’re not quite there

A few days ago I came across this discussion in Hacker News. Summing up, Bren Victor, a rather famous human computer interaction designer at Apple during the last few years, criticized the vision that some people have about how the future is going to look like in terms of user interfaces design. He complains that the current approach we have to user interaction, which is mainly clicking on some kind of glass with our fingertips is not disruptive enough and he thinks we should challenge ourselves much more than that. So he purposes to exploit the highly-sensitive devices that our hands are to communicate ourselves with the machines, hence trying to follow a 3d sort of approach. Whether this is right or not, can be a source of an argument between those who like to research about this kind of stuff (Human Computer Interaction researchers and UI designers mainly). So, in order not to feel short-sighted just listening to one of the parts, I decided to read a bit about this discussion and I especially liked this opinion:

The article focuses on “everyday object” manipulation, but he’s right about technology too: there are a wealth of common HCI tools that glass cannot accommodate. – The textual keyboard remains one of the fastest methods of text entry. It can be used without looking, offers high bandwidth, affords both serial and chorded inputs, and works well for precise navigation in discrete spaces, like text, spreadsheets, sets of objects like forms, layers, flowcharts, etc. – MIDI keyboards are comparable, but trade discrete bandwidth for the expressiveness of pressure modulation. – The joystick (and associated interfaces like wheels, pedals, etc) are excellent tools for orienting. They can also offer precise haptic feedback through vibration and resistance. – The stylus is an unparalleled instrument for HCI operations involving continuous two dimensional spaces. It takes advantage of fine dexterity in a way that mice cannot, offering position, pressure (or simply contact), altitude, angle, and tip discrimination. – Trackballs and mice are excellent tools for analogue positional input with widely varying velocities. You can seek both finely and rapidly, taking advantage of varying grips. Trackballs offer the added tactile benefits of inertia and operating on an infinite substrate. – Dials, wheels. A well-made dial is almost always faster and more precise than up-down digital controls. They offer instant visual feedback, precise tuning, spatial discrimination, variable velocities, can be used without looking, and can be adapted for multiple resolutions. – Sliders. Offers many of the advantages of dials—smooth control with feedback, usable without looking—but in a linear space. Trades an infinite domain for linear manipulation/display, easier layout and use in flat or crowded orientations. And these are just some of the popular ones. You’ve got VR headsets for immersive 3d audio and video, haptic gloves or suits, sometimes with cabling for precise pressure and force vector feedback, variable-attitude simulators, etc. There are weirder options as well—implanted magnets or electrode arrays to simulate vision, hearing, heat, taste, etc… Dedicated interfaces can perform far better at specific tasks, but glass interfaces offer reconfigurability at low cost. That’s why sound engineers have physical mixer boards, writers are using pens or keyboards, artists are using Wacom tablets, nuclear physicists are staring at fine-tuning knobs, and motorcyclists are steering with bars, grips, and body positioning; but everyday people are enjoying using their ipad to perform similar tasks. Glass isn’t going to wipe out physical interfaces; it’s just a flexible tool in an expanding space of interaction techniques. More and more devices, I predict, will incorporate multitouch displays along dedicated hardware to solve problems in a balanced way.

He makes a good point here and I honestly am unaware of what the history of text entry is and how come the earliest device we invented to solve this problem (the keyboard, right?) remains to be the best solution by far. I think that he made sort of a good point here and I started to think that the humanity is getting a tad apathetic compared to previous generations. Our parents grew up dreaming about having people walking on the moon, that was really a turning point in history and I don’t really see how people is doing anything similar since the born of the internet. Some people address that odd centuries are more about incremental development instead of coming up with completely different things. For example, America was discovered in the late 15th century, whilst it was more or less clear that we had a new continent in the early 16th century. America was occupied by the Spanish during that century. They basically settled and took an advantage of their new possessions during the 17th century. Something similar happened during the 18th and 19th centuries with the industrial revolution. We started the information/globalization era in this last century (20th). Will the 21st century be all about incremental changes, debugging and refining this, or are we going to come up with anything REALLY new?

So, back to the UI lack of innovation rant, here’s newest Nokia research team video. Kind of fiddling around with some of the concepts that this guy came up with just a few weeks ago. Still timid but a dramatic change from what I have seen lately.

PS: I had a lecture with Don Patterson a few days ago in which he showed us the Nokia Morph Concept. It really left me speechless, but I think were at least 10 years away from this technology.

Nokia Morph