Sunday, September 23, 2007

UI Breakthroughs-2-Physicality

Development of new physical devices ...

Column written for Interactions. © CACM, 2007. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included.


"In a previous column I discussed the re-emergence of command line language. Once these were the ways we used our operating systems and applications. Now they are re-emerging within search engines. They are hidden, not easy to learn about, but I expect them to grow in power and, over time, become the dominant means of interaction.

In this column I talk of a second trend, one that also has much earlier origins: the return to physical controls and devices. In the theoretical fields that underlie our field, this is called embodiment: see Paul Dourish’s book “Where the Action Is.” But the trend is far more extensive than is covered by research on tangible objects, and somewhat different from the philosophical foundations implied by embodiment, so I use the term “physicality.”

Physicality: the return to physical devices, where we control things by physical body movement, by turning, moving, and manipulating appropriate mechanical devices;

We have evolved as physical creatures. We live in a complex, three-dimensional world filled with physical objects. We are analog beings in an artificial world of digital devices, devices that abstract what is powerful and good from the physical world and turn it into information spaces, usually in arbitrary ways. These new approaches put the body back into the picture. They require us to control through physical action, which means through mechanical devices, not electronic or graphic, through physical rather than virtual.

At one point, when digital circuits took over the control of such mundane objects as automobile radios, physical controls were removed. Ugh. The most recent advances in automobile radios and other audio equipment is to re-introduce knobs for tuning and loudness control. Even BMW in its attempt to replace all knobs, buttons and controls by a single control knob and complex menu hierarchy has been forced to bring back physical switches and knobs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this trend is the Nintendo Wii game machine. Here, physical movement is the major method for interacting with its video games. The Wii has completely changed the game world: kudos to Nintendo! Tablet computers are slowly inching toward respectability, because the joy of being able to write and draw directly on a page or upon images is powerful, especially when coupled with a machine that also allows the more standard mouse-based pointing and typing inputs to work just as before: the result is the best of all worlds.

Physical devices have immediate design virtues, but they require new rules of engagement than we are used to with the typical mouse movements and clicks of the traditional keyboard and mouse interface. Designers have to learn how to translate the mechanical actions and directness into control of the task.

As we switch to tangible objects and physical controls, new principles of interaction have to be learned, old ones discarded. With the Wii, developers discovered that former methods didn’t always apply. Thus, in traditional game hardware, when one wants an action to take place, the player pushes a button. With the Wii, the action depends upon the situation. To release a bowling ball, for example, one releases the button push. It makes sense when I write it, but I suspect the bowling game designers discovered this through trial and error, plus a flash of insight. Not all of the games for Wii have yet understood the new principles. This will provide fertile ground for researchers in HCI."    (Continued via Don Norman's jnd.org)    [Usability Resources]

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