The future of the Interface

What is the future of the GUI – graphical user interface? Is it a three dimensional immersive environment that uses physical motion and movement input through digital skin, gloves and virtual reality goggles? Alternatively, is it a two dimensional screen that relies on touch, and voice activated conversation system with audio commands? Or… is it all of the above?I would venture to say that it is most likely all of the above and then some things that we have not even thought of yet. The interface will evolve much in the same way that we evolve, through need based adaptation and market forces. Economic forces will most likely have the largest impact on what new technologies make it to the selves of electronic super stores, and which innovations sit in a basement of a laboratory at MIT.

As designers, we are always striving to make the interaction between user and technology better, more intuitive and more human. This interaction is inherent between user and any technology, not just computers. The ergonomic design that goes into the interface between driver and automobile is extensive and essential to the success of the product. A well-designed interface can make or break a product.

The Apple Macintosh established an archetype for the computer desktop that has driven application design across platforms for over twenty years. Today Apple’s innovative interface design with ITunes and IPod, in both desktop and physical aesthetics has redefined online entertainment and they way we consume it. The Apple Ipod was not the first MP3 audio player to market, but now it is the dominant one, and the competition is quickly following suit from design and functionality.

The Object is the Objective

All objects, whether based in computer technology or not have unique requirements that will be the defining basis of the user interface with that object. An automobile may become more digital, perhaps using head up displays, touch screen input for features like radio, video, and diagnostics, but there will always be some sort of steering wheel. It may not be round like a wheel, but it will be physically attached to the steering column and the wheels and steering system.

Just as species, evolve slowly over time, so will the interface. Evolution is something that happens through slight changes in the norm from various outside pressures and influences. Applications and computing devices are successful and adopted based on a certain expected uniformity in performance and interaction. Through consistency of interaction, users are able to move effortlessly from one platform to another with almost no learning curve. Radical shifts in the user paradigm can result in user confusion or additional user effort and ultimately rejection of a product that might be inherently good.

So is the object the objective? I believe it is. Interfaces should be designed to enhance the user experience, remove pitfalls, and obstacles, and should not be designed for design sake.

Today, with the advent of various three dimensional platforms such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, and several others, the idea of the 3D immersive environment is generating a great deal of buzz in the technology world. Millions of dollars are being spent on technologies such as Second Life so users can meet in virtual boardrooms regardless of their physical location, or attend classes remotely and view an avatar of a professor as they lecture. All of this is still accessed via a standard keyboard and a personal computer. Therefore, we are still accessing this faux 3D via a 2D monitor.

I am not completely sold on the concept of the immersive three-dimensional environment. Technology evangelists like Myron Kruger and Jaron Lanier, the man who coined the phrase “virtual reality”, seem to think that this type of interface is what we, as innovators and designers should be striving towards. That interaction of man and machine should be one of “goggles and gloves”, where computers respond to the physical movements of the individual user.

Lanier says that he sees a world headed towards “post-symbolic communications where children grow up with the ability to program and make virtual micro-worlds according to their own thoughts… they can invent the contents of virtual worlds very quickly, at an improvisatory rate.”  On one hand Lanier makes the argument that this type of improvisational development is the future, but then in his essay “Digital Maosim” he seems to argue the opposite. That the current trend of collective collaboration illustrated by applications such as Wikipedia are leading us down a dangerous path: “the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it’s now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn’t make it any less dangerous”.

Won’t this instantaneous virtual computing power and development based on thoughts of children lead to the same influx of mediocrity, and collectivism? Will the mob rule if we can dynamically create virtual applications based on thought?

I believe that the biggest challenge to the ubiquitous computing device interface today is information management and search functionality. Vannevar Bush recognized this issue in 1945 with his Atlantic Monthly essay “As We May Think.” He saw the inevitable need for information management as one of the greatest post World War II dilemmas facing our growing nation, and society in general. This has never been truer than it is today.

We are constantly being bombarded with and seeking out information, in all forms: radio, television, web, RSS, email, SPAM, etc… This is a critical problem in technology development from and interface perspective, a design perspective, a hardware perspective, and content perspective. It is an enormous challenge and responsibility for designers and producers.

Movements in the world of the World Wide Web have been focusing less on our physical interface with the machine and more on our interaction with the content that the machine conveys, or gives us access to. Through the establishment of uniform standards put forth by the WC3 that evolve in a controlled manner, the science of search will also evolve. The search will become what Tim Berners-Lee describes as “structured collections of information and sets of inference rules that they can use to conduct automated reasoning”. The concept of the “Semantic” web is a major step in the direction of searchable and manageable data collection and retrieval that becomes more essential everyday.

Regardless of the device the user is employing, hand held device, desktop computer, GPS navigation device, reliable search capability is a key element to the effectiveness of the device, validity of the data network.

What is Next?

Devices will come and go. This Holiday Season, it is the Kindle electronic book reader, the device that promises to kill the book as we know it. This summer it will be a better I Phone, or the Microsoft version of it… perhaps The Bill Phone. Both will use the touch screen concept for device interaction, and most likely, we will see this new style of interface popping up everywhere from hand held devices to table tops.

One thing I am confident in is that the 3D evangelists that talk of a future of immersive environments will eventually seem less important, as the technology that they pontificate about does not arrive. The market place will seal the fate of environments like Second Life, because they do not deliver what they promise. They are too expensive and require too many resources to match the visions of their creators.

It seems to me that some of these visionaries are missing the forest through the trees. We already exist in an immersive three-dimensional environment. Let us focus on evolving in this world through the application of technology that enhances our lives but does not fully envelope us and remove us from the world we live in.

I see the screen, no matter what size, as the primary access portal to content. This screen may take the form of a contact lens, or other HUD device, but we will always remain on this side of the looking glass. I just don’t get why it is so important to so many to feel like we have gone to the other side.

Sure, it is great fun to fly around and attack a band of Orcs that have just pillaged a village… but it is also great to smell a Rose, use Google to find the local florist, and use your I Phone to order a dozen for your wife.

I will take a real Rose over a 3D-rendered one any day.

TJB.

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