This past weekend saw a great turnout for the Interaction Designers Association REDUX – a recap of talks originally presented in Dublin, Ireland in early February. The San Francisco chapter of the IxDA gathered at Adobe in China Basin on a glorious spring day. Still weary from a winter full of rain, we were all eager to let some light into our perspectives on the trends and topics of the industry, as well as soak up the eclectic line-up of talks throughout the afternoon.
I was lucky enough to be asked to arrange attendance of the speakers and host the event – giving me a front-row seat for what my peers had to fly halfway around the world to see. Much to my surprise, and without exception, each and every speaker jumped at the chance to come and present their work again. The most difficult part of the event, from my view, was trying to conceive of questions that matched the intelligence of the speakers and their presentations.
GUI, NUI and wait, what.. now OUI?
Both Rachel Hinman and August De Los Reyes presented different dimensions around the use of Natural User Interfaces (NUI) and the trending of mobile devices to reduce the explicit impact of technology. We’ve gone beyond figuring out how to get content on mobile devices – this hurdle has been overcome, successfully hurdled past the tipping point and phones being solely used for telecommunication. Our challenge today is how to insert technology ubiquitously (either physically or virtually) to the point where our phones can stay in our pockets and the capabilities of technology will remain. The emphasis on an elegant GUI is certainly not gone, but the emphasis has instead shifted from computer generated display to the positioning and context in which the technology is present in.
August De Los Reyes, who is currently working on a “top secret project” for Samsung, had previously come from the Microsoft Surface team – an early, widely-known example of the NUI. Instead of forcing a user to scan, upload or type information through a keyboard or touchscreen, the recognition of simply placing the object on a table presents a clear case of a NUI. One can see a similar implementation from Microsoft, in their success with the Kinect Gaming system – take away the controllers and let the body gestures dictate the experience. With Kinect – the hardware no longer needs to be visible as it did with Surface, an interactive experience can take place using hidden cameras and providing feedback with audible cues. Comparing these two examples from Microsoft shows how Natural UI can progress towards a more Organic UI.
Organic UI today, but Passé Tomorrow?
Talks at the TEI 2011 Workshop in Portugal centered around the discussion of what constitutes an Organic vs. Natural experience. In their initial definitions, the term “organic” refers only to a subjective of the experience. Organic qualities, as it relates to a UI, is perceived through breaking down the plastic and glass encasement of hardware – or standard feature components of software design. A paper-based computer is an obvious incarnation – we don’t expect computers to bend, or be cordless or have a tactical sense of touch.
Presentation of natural components in place of where an interface commonly located – to “trigger a suspension of disbelief and become emotionally involved in a narrative”. Today, one can easily see the novelty of innovations such as a flexible, paper-like display or the optical recognition of Kinect. But when do we cease to become emotionally involved? This suggests that we become jaded with our computer interactions, and novel methods need to be continually applied in order to suspend our disbelief. Take an interaction method as widely accepted as the multi-touch trackpad and present this to a user who has never seen a laptop before, and even this method of interaction will seem both natural and organic.
As we type with our fingers, or draw back our lungs to breathe, we are operating a machine – the external hardware that tracks the subtleties of our physical interaction. Siri on the iPhone (Apple’s implementation of voice-controlled interaction) is a good example of an Organic User Interface. Visually, it is a glowing microphone that pulses when thinking, and displays a narrative on a question and answer. M. Fauscette provides an interesting write-up on the role of voice commands in the past and how far they’ve advanced in the 30 years since introduction. It has only been in the last two or three years has this become a Natural act – where we can speak to our cars or our phones and expect a functional response.
Barriers to Progress
What could be some boundaries as we seek to present technology ubiquitously everywhere and anywhere? Centuries of text-based communication do not ‘unwrite’ themselves very easily and new interface methods will certainly present a new learning curve. The less standard our delivery methods – and initially they should lack a standard to continue this subjective novelty, the steeper that curve may be.
There may also exist a constraint on the different experiences available within the interaction itself. An extremely tailored experience in implementation presents challenges in delivering variety around the content itself. A single, Organic method of human computer interaction (dancing in front of a Kinect or recalling a phone number through Siri) may currently be perceived as elegant and efficient – but reversing the tasks for each would render each incompatible. Will walling off the ability for one size to fit all result in a loss of adoption, or is Organic UI a term and a mindset appropriated only for specialized devices?