Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Need for Better Interfaces (Human to Computer)

I can't help but believe that there has to be a better way. There has to be more options...

I talking about the I/O options to my computer. Here are a couple of recent stories that will hopefully bring context to what I mean.

Gestures on the Mac
Recently I purchased a new MacBook Pro. You know, one of the new Macs with the multi-touch capabilities. The idea is that if you use one finger you move the mouse, if you use 2 fingers it scrolls (and not just up and down), if you use 3 fingers then it depends somewhat on what application you are using, but generally it means go back or go forward depending on the wave of the hand. This is just awesome stuff and here is what happened to me.
First, the back and forth action of 3 fingers worked in Safari and in finder.... but not in Firefox. I was a little more than dismayed. Generally preferring Firefox, I found myself using Safari more in order to use the gestures. I really wanted this new feature in all applications. Eventually the shiny new toy lost some luster and I mostly use Firefox again. The consequence... sometimes I forget the gestures work in the finder... and I know that I would use it all the time if it always worked. In other words if the bell always rings and I can trust it, I will salivate. And I want to.

A PC with No Gestures
So eventually I found myself working again on another laptop. Man did I look like an idiot for a few minutes. I come to a page that needs scrolling, naturally I reach up to the touchpad with 2 fingers... moving it back and forth to get a scroll thinking for a moment damn computer is locked up or slow... only to discover that I was the component with the issue. It didn't help that my daughter was staring at me funny wondering what I was doing. She was still laughing even after I explained myself.

iTouch as a Birthday Gift
So last week was the same daughters birthday. I bought here a new iTouch. She loves it when I let it leave my hands for her to use. The first couple of days were great. She asked me "how do you turn it on?". I said, "It has one button... push it!". She would ask, "How do I get back out of this application?". I would say, "It has one button... push it!". And of course, she quickly gain the necessary skills and probably has surpassed my abilities on the thing within a few days.

PC is Not an iTouch
So last night she was asking me for some sync help between the laptop and iTouch. After a little conversation, she understands what she needs to do... she needs to hit the sync button on the laptop. What does she do? She taps the screen on the laptop... not once, but a couple of times and then begins to laugh. It was funny.

MacBook as a Fish Tank
Last example. I love to scuba and I love the ocean. When I saw the aquarium screen saver for the mac, it was an obvious purchase. So there is a setting on the screen saver, which reads "Enable Motion Sensor Water Tilting". First you have to turn this on! It uses the motion sensor on the mac so that if you tilt the laptop it appears that physics has applied forces on the water in your laptop the way you would expect. The water tilts! Here's the deal: The optical illusion is so good that even really savvy software developers are impressed and want to know: How?

Call to Action: Better Human Interfaces
If you combine the above stories with the fact that I just finished reading "Dreaming in Code", which outlines how far we haven't come in software development for the last half of a century, I'm left restless. There has to be more... there has to be better... Meaning more we can do and better ways of interfacing with computers. We are just beginning to see it. When you look at Microsoft Surface, Apple's iPhone and the promise of RFID, you begin to see it. It isn't what the general software developer is being train on or developing... They are still working on Dialogs.
Those who claim to be on the cutting edge, they are working on web 2.0 with javascript and cool new frameworks (they are cool). But that isn't what the future demands. The future demands seamless integration computer to human... where the human gestures to something and the machine understands. Where the computer knows what is expected and provides recommendation and choice. In this world, the interface isn't always a screen... and the input isn't a keyboard or a mouse!

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