Tangible on the Touch Interface: Apptivity Toys on the iPad

I run into an Apptivity toys commercial online. I think it’s a pretty cool idea. Apptivity toys are physical toys that you can use on the surface of the iPad. For one thing, it extends the limits of hand gestures and finger sizes. For another, it extends the limits of the touch surface into the psychical world. It’s a combination of touch user interface and tangible user interface. So children who grow up with tablet touch surfaces will also have the direct opportunities to play the physical toys with the virtual world. I can see that it will be even cooler to play these toys on a larger touch screen than the iPad. I understand that they made the toys suitable for the iPad because it would be easier to be adopted since so many people already have the iPad. This is one step further to integrate the physical world and the virtual world.

Future Interface for Researchers: NUI+BCI

I’m a researcher. I read and write all the time. When I write, I need to cite what I’ve read, in order to identify the holes in what others have written and provide support for my own argument.

I read various publications: academic papers, books, reports, magazines, blogs, etc. I read from various media: either printed or electronic formats from my own laptop, or my old PC, or university lab computers, or my iPhone, or maybe iPad or Kindle etc. I read in various places and position: at the dining table while eating breakfast, at my study desk at home, in the office, in the library, in a cafe, sitting on the floor on my Yoga mat, or lying in bed.

I try to be organized of my reading, so that I can remember to cite them later while writing. I make folders and piles. I highlight interesting and important sentences while reading. I take notes. I use citation management tools. All these and a good memory have made my life in graduate school a tiny little bit easier, but I still find it is very difficult to keep track of what I’ve read and remember to cite them later if I am short on time and have an intense writing task and urgent deadline. While acknowledged that how to manage and organize reading and writing is a very very important skill to learn in graduate school, I still wish there would be some innovative methods to ease this process.

I had this idea while I was doing my PhD readiness assessment earlier this semester, in which I had to read and write a lot in two weeks. At some moments, I was so exhausted. I had piles of printed papers, books, notebooks, and laptops (with even more papers and notes inside) lying around my room on the desk, on the floor, and on the bed. When I read, I saw many interesting quotes that I might cite later, but I didn’t have the time to jot all them down, because I might only cite a small portion of them, jotting all of them down would take too much time out of my precious two weeks. But later, when I really wanted to cite one of them, it actually took some time to find it, or I just simply couldn’t remember and gave up. I wish at that time, I could have the ability to just crab the important sentences out of the papers or the computer screen along with the descriptors where they came from using a simple hand gesture (the key point here is that, no matter what kind of media or formats I am reading, I have to be able to crab them using a simple hand gesture), and throw them on the surface of the wall or a big canvas somewhere. Then I could arrange and select them just by eyeing them or thinking about them, because I was too tired lying in bed and couldn’t stand up and touch the wall. (I may also settle with waving hands and kicking legs if eyeing and thinking are still too difficult to implement for now:) Then maybe I could think about how I would write the argument, and the computer can just write it down for me.

I think the key here is how to integrate all different forms of media, how to integrate the physical world, our body and brain, and the digital world. How to smooth the connections and communications among all them. We can pretty much manage one device or one type of task very well, but when there are so many different forms of stuff, we get dis-organized and lost. I think we are actually close to realizing this integration, there are cool things done by the natural user interface (NUI) and brain computer interface (BCI) communities. The MIT media lab is among the famous ones. I do believe the future of HCI lies in the combination of NUI and BCI to solve this integration problem.

One side thought here is that context does matter a lot for design. I had this idea when I was working at home. So I wanted to be able to wave and kick and be able to write while lying in bed. But later I moved my “battle field” to the office on campus, then my urge to wave and kick stopped since it would be inappropriate in the office. So I am essentially developing a persona of a researcher based on myself and think about the context and need of this persona.

Slow Technology: Technology is NOT all about Efficiency

A footnote about slow technology at page 11 in the UX book caught my attention, since I am interested in the social and emotional aspect of modern technologies. As promised in class, I dug a little deeper and am writing a blog post about slow technology here.

The term slow technology was first described in 2001 by two Swedish designers Lars Hallnas and Johan Restrom in their seminal paper titled Slow Technology–Designing for Reflection published in the Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing. They present slow technology as “a design agenda for technology aimed at reflection and moments of mental rest rather than efficiency in performance“.

The concept of slow technology has similar ideology and roots as terms such as appropriate technology, calm technology, reflective technology, zenware, and even sustainable development, and slow food movement. Initially, technology was designed for the purpose to assist professionals to perform specific tasks under specific situations faster and more efficiently, so people could save time to enjoy other part of their life. However, when technology moved from specific work environment and scientific computation centers into people’s daily life, efficiency and function oriented products start to cause problems. Technologies become ubiquitous in people’s life. People are constantly expected to check emails, messages, respond to social networking sites, etc. People get tired, distracted about and also addicted to this “always on, always on” life style. This is part of the dark side of the modern technologies that causes “a culture of distraction”. Combining with this week’s reading on human cognition, ubiquitously existing electronic gadgets are eating up people’s bits of short-term memory and attention, and preventing mental resting, reflection and learning.

Slow technology advocates to design while considering the broader context of the human beings, not for the purpose to help the user to perform a certain task faster, but to help build a harmonious relationship between the human and the environment, and to foster reflection and learning. The difference between fast technology and slow technology is that fast technology is designed for a specific purpose, task, or situation in people life, but show technology is designed for longer period of time and more integrated into the user’s living environment.

Several examples and analogies are given in Hallnas and Redstrom’s paper:

(1) When designing a chair, only designing for the situation where a person is actually sitting down is very different from designing for longer periods of time during which people would sit sometimes. In the later case, the chair is not only designed for the moment of having people siting down, but also part of the environment. Not only the affordance of being able to sit upon is relevant, but the aesthetics of its design, and its integration with the rest of the environment are also important.

(2) Considering the different ringtons of two doorbells, one plays the same short melody repetitively every time the doorbell rings, the second one plays short fragments of a very long melody each time somebody press the doorbell button.  To fully grasp the doorbell through its behavior, the user have to stop and reflect for a moment each time it rings and only over time can the user grasp the whole melody. The “slow” doorbell is not designed to be just an efficient signaling mechanism for non-reflective use, but rather an artifact that through its expression and slow appearance puts reflective use in focus.

(3) The difference between fast food and a gourmet meal is that both of them are to be eaten, but fast food is to achieve this purpose fast and efficiently, but gourmet meal takes longer time to cook and is supposed to be eaten slowly. People can enjoy the appearance of the gourmet meal and the processing of eating it, and would gain good mood and healthy eating habit.

In some sense, the difference between fast technology and slow technology is functionality vs. aesthetics. In this sense, the concept of slow technology is very close to art and music. A typical impression about art is slowness. People need to take time to enjoy and reflect upon art pieces. But the typical impression about technology is fastness and efficiency. I believe as technology advances to a certain point, at least some part of it needs to slow down in order for people to gain a balanced life. This is coherent to the difference between task-oriented design and goal-oriented design concepts in Cooper’s book. Fast technology is designed for the task and the functionality, but slow technology is taken into consideration the user’s life goal. Actually, in my opinion, the concept of slow technology is not only taking into consideration the individual user’s life goal, it is considering a broader goal of all human kind, that is to learn, to understand, to reflect, to enjoy life and beauty, and to sustain overall a prolong period of time.