The Interface Paradox

As much as I love programming and good old-fashioned text-based command lines, I have an interest in ergonmics and futuristic interface. A few days ago a post entitled “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design” made the rounds on the Internet. It opens with an old, but interesting video and goes to make the argument that our current obsession with flat touchscreens and simple gestures is doing our us all as disservice. Our hands are capable of complex gripping, grasping and touching motions and having all that expressivity confined to a small, two dimensional surface with a limited number of motions is self-defeating. The article makes the damning statement: “Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?”

The article helped me express an uncertainty that’s been floating back and forth in my mind for some time. I use my iPod Touch on a daily basis and I’ve been loving the multitouch trackpad on the new Macbooks. I love the swiping motions for window management and moving things around. At the same time I’ve started drawing by hand again (I loved drawing as a kid) and I realize that putting a pencil to paper is a rather complex but very fulfilling activity. Strangely enough I think that both the pencil and the touch-based iOS interface have a lot in common. In both cases, the actual physical device almost disappears letting you focus on the underlying application. The iPad or iPhone itself is just a thin frame around whatever app you’re using. The pencil is basically just a simple pointer but allows us to create an infinited range of images with it.

However in both cases, the expressiveness offered by the device is not enough. Pencils are not enough to express all the images we might want to create. That’s why we have pens, brushes, chalk, crayons and a variety of papers and canvases. The flat touch interface is also not enough, especially if we are confined to a small surface that fits in one hand. The question then is how we can take the simplicity of our current touch interface and extend them to a larger set of expressions and interactions?

Case in point is the camera interface on the iPhone. For a long time there was a software button that you had to touch to take a picture. But that meant sticking your finger in the middle of the picture. Normal cameras have a better interface: there is shutter button on the top that keeps your hands far from the actual image (even if you’re using a LCD screen instead of a traditional viewfinder). This deficient interface on the iPhone led to the Red Pop, a giant red shutter button and now iOS 5 turns one of the hardware volume buttons into a shutter button.

The Red Pop camera interface for the iPhone
The Red Pop camera interface for the iPhone

Having a fluid, upgradeable, customizable software interface is nice and I like smooth gradients and rounded corners as much as the next guy. But our hands evolved to use actual physical matter and before computer interfaces we built a lot of interesting physical interfaces. Apple has hooked us on the idea of sleek, smooth devices with no extraneous. While it’s great to lose unnecessary knobs and edges the Apple design philosophy might not be best in the long run, especially if your device’s UI doesn’t neatly fit into the touch-drag-swipe system of gestures.

Ultimately it would be great to have “smart matter” physical interfaces – the flexibility and programmability of software with the physical usability that solid matter offers. Imagine some sort of rearranging material (based on some form of nano- or micro-technology maybe?) that can be be a simple smooth shell around your interfaces but can change to form buttons, sliders, knobs or big red shutter buttons as your application requires. But in the years (decades?) between now and then we need other solutions. The range of accessories and extensions available for the iPhone (including the Red Pop, tripods, lenses etc.) seem to suggest that enterprising young device maker could use the iPhone (and it’s successors and competitors) as a computing core to which they can attach their own physical extensions. With a more open and hackable platform (an Android-Arduino hybrid perhaps) we might see a thriving device market as well as an app market. Am I a dreamer? Hell yeah, but as the projects I’ve linked to show, I’m certainly not the only one.

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How many devices is enough?

I love gadgets and devices. I really do. Before I got introduced to the world of computers, I loved wristwatches. Then it was phones and computers. Now I have a fascination for mobile computers and phone-like devices (I don’t like phones as phones, just the physical gadgets). I’ve only really started buying my own devices since I moved to the US of A about two and half years ago. My current stock of devices is:

  1. A 15.4″ ‘work’ laptop
  2. A 4-year old Mac Mini
  3. A recent Eee PC netbook
  4. An old G4 used as a backup server (to be replaced by a VM when I leave school)
  5. A 2-year old iPod Classic
  6. A 7MP Canon Camera
  7. A dirt cheap Nokia cell phone

Though I use pretty all of them fairly regularly (except the camera) I think I have a few too many pieces of hardware. A lot of my friends think 4 computers is way too much, but I think I would really need about 3 computers: one machine (a desktop or larger laptop) for daily work, a netbook for travel and a remote server for backups and emergencies. However, it’s the portable devices that are starting to frustrate me.

I’m at the point where each of my portables does one job (and does it pretty well). My phone makes calls, my camera takes pictures and my iPod plays music. I can appreciate the fact that it’s a vaguely UNIX-y setup, but I’m coming to realize that the UNIX philosophy does not really apply to hardware, at least not to portable devices. In the case of software, it doesn’t really matter if you have 5 installed programs or 50. You have 50 functions either way. However the more devices you have, the more you need to lug around. And you only have two hands to hold them with.

In many ways, the iPhone is a stroke of pure genius. It’s combines all of my current devices into a single package. And it’s just the right size too: pocket-size. But I’m not going to get a iPhone for a good few years. I really don’t need  any of the expensive plans that the contracts require, especially since I don’t really like making phone calls. Also I want to take slightly better pictures than what the iPhone currently allows. Many of the same reasons apply to Android phones. And the third reason is that I’ve been thinking a lot about yet another device for a while: the Kindle.

On Ebook readers

Ebook readers are finally starting to make it into the mainstream. I like the idea of having a portable library that I can take everywhere with me. But at the same time it’s yet another dedicated device. Now you could argue that it’s possible to read documents on the iPhone or a similar device. It’s certainly possible, but it’s probably not something you want to do.

It’s a question of form-factors: the phone form-factor is good for always-on, in-your-pocket communication devices. Anything smaller and you wouldn’t be able to use the Internet with any comfort and much larger and it won’t fit in pockets. But when it comes to actual serious reading for extended periods of time, you want something that’s larger than can fit in one hand. The reasons may be psychological as well as physical, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re used to book-size material and would rather not adapt to something else. The sizes of the Kindle and Nook are bigger than what can fit in your pocket, which means that they won’t fill the role of smaller devices.

In some ways, a netbook and an E-book reader are of comparable form factors. They’re both too large to fit into your pocket, but they are small and light enough that you don’t need to think twice about slipping them into a backpack. This isn’t to say that they are comparable devices. I certainly wouldn’t curl up in bed with my netbook, and I wouldn’t use the Kindle to do any sort of serious text-processing (though web browsing, certainly).

As I keep wondering if I read enough books in enough places to warrant a Kindle (I probably don’t), I can’t help but also think about another contender waiting to jump in:

The Apple Tablet

My professor wants a device the size of a Kindle DX, but that connects to the Internet and can run apps. This is pretty much what the Apple will probably be. So no one really knows for certain what the Apple tablet will be like. But it’s probably going to be about the size of an ebook reader with features similar to, but not the same as, an iPhone. It’s almost certainly going to have some sort of wireless connectivity and might come subsidized with a data plan.

I’m sure a lot of people except the Apple tablet to cannibalize the ebook reader market the same way that the iPod took the over the MP3 player market. I doubt that’s going to happen, the main reason being that the distribution channels are already out of Apple’s reach. But going by Apple’s track record the tablet will certainly be an interesting device. And it’s going to be yet another device that I won’t get.

Firstly the price will almost certainly be too high for what I feel uncomfortable spending. Anything less than $500 and it risks eating into the iPod Touch market and I’m not ready to spend more than that. Secondly, I don’t want yet another semi-general purpose computer. Given the tablet’s probable size, I feel that wherever I’d take my tablet, I already take my netbook. And I’ll take a computer with a full keyboard over a tablet any day.

So how many devices do I really need?

I think the truth is that right now I have just the right number of portable devices. I have devices that do everything that I want to do when I’m moving (music, pictures, phone calls). I also have my netbook that acts as a quick way to get online when I don’t want to go find an actual computer.

None of the other devices offer really compelling devices for me to buy them. I don’t move around enough to justify an iPhone’s pricey plans. I have access to a wide selection of paper books at my school library and I don’t buy nearly enough books to justify a Kindle. And I simply do not have a suitable use case for using a tablet over my netbook.

As my current stock of items starts to fail, I will try to consolidate somewhat. The battery on my iPod is starting to show its age, but I’m waiting for an iPod Touch with a decent camera to come out to replace it. Combine that with a Skype number and constant wi-fi and I can leave out my phone too.

I’m still going to keep my eye on things and if I see a device that’s useful and low-priced enough, I might consider a buy. But only after I’ve thought things through on this blog.