The Universal Intuitive Interface

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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The Universal Intuitive Interface

The history of technology is the history of interfaces - their successes and failures. The GUI (the Graphic User Interface), which replaced cumbersome and unwieldy text-based interfaces (DOS), became an integral part of the astounding success of the PC.

Yet, all computer interfaces hitherto share the same growth-stunting problems. They are:

a.      Non-transparency - the workings of the hardware and software (the "plumbing") show through;

b.     Non-ubiquity - the interface is connected to a specific machine or application and, thus, is non-transportable and non-transferrable;

c.      Arcane user-unfriendliness (i.e., to operate, the interfaces require specific knowledge and the entry of sequences of commands using a specialized syntax).

Even the most "user-friendly" interface is way too complicated for the typical user. The average PC is hundreds of times more complex than your living-room TV. Even the VCR or DVD players - far less complex than the PC - are challenging. How many people use the full range of a VCR's options?

The ultimate interface should be:

a.      Self-assembling - it should reconstruct itself, from time to time, fluidly;

b.     Self-recursive - it should be able to observe and analyze its own behavior;

c.      Learning-capable - it should learn from its experience;

d.     Self-modifying - it should modify itself according to its accumulated experience;

e.      History-recording;

f.      Media indifferent (it should span and encompass your hard disk, movable media, network, and the Web).

The interface of the future must possess a "picture of the world" (a-la artificial intelligence), preferably including itself, the user, and their cumulative interactions.

It must regard all other "intelligent" machines in its "world"  (the user being only one of them) as its "clients" and be able to communicate with them in a natural language.

Its universe must be seamless: the physical or virtual location of files or hardware or software or applets or servers or communication lines or information and so on must be irrelevant.

It will probably be peer-orientated (no hierarchy).

I call it "the intuitive universal interface".

The new media technologies were designed by engineers and programmers - not by marketing people and users. The interface of the future will reflect the needs, wishes, limitations, and skills of users. This is a revolutionary shift and a natural outcome of the takeover of the Internet by governments and bottom line orientated corporations. The interface of the future will seek to enhance usage and enrich the user's experience - not to win technological beauty contests. It is a welcome transition and long overdue.

The Search Engines of the Future

The search engines of the future are likely to offer the following:

1. A seamless search of your hard disk, movable media, network, and the Web using a common interface and the same dialog.

2. Localized search results with relevant advertising using geolocation services.

3. Alerts in search results regarding HTML pages that execute malicious code (spyware, adware, Trojan downloaders) when you visit them (already available from Google and Yahoo).

4. WHOIS records specific to the domains in search results.

Monopolizing the Field of Vision: From AND Screens to OR Screens

1. Screens that Include Reality vs. Screens that Exclude It

Screens have been with us for centuries now: paintings are screens and so are windows. Yet, the very nature of screens has undergone a revolutionary transformation in the last decade or so. All the screens that preceded the PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistant) and the smartphone’s were inclusive of reality, they were AND screens: when you watched them you could not avoid (“screen out”) data emanating from your physical environment. “Screen-AND-reality” was the prevalent modus operandi.

Consider the cinema, the television, and the personal computer (PC): even when entangled in the flow of information provided by these machines, you were still fully exposed to and largely aware of your surroundings. The screens of the past were one step removed: there was always a considerable physical distance between user and device and the field of vision extended to encompass copious peripheral input.

Now consider the iPhone or the digital camera: their screens, though tiny, monopolize the field of vision and exclude the world by design. The physical distance between retina and screen has shrunk to the point of vanishing. 3-D television with its specialty eyeglasses and total immersion is merely the culmination of this trend: the utter removal of reality from the viewer’s experience. Modern screens are, therefore, OR screens: you either watch the screen OR observe reality. You cannot do both.

2. Perception and Representation in Analog and Digital Cameras

The digital camera profoundly affects the way we perceive and represent the world around us on "film".

To start with, the user of the analog camera used to watch the world, however indirectly. All that stood between him and reality was the viewer of his apparatus. He recorded what he saw "out there".

In contrast, the user of the digital camera watches a representation of the world on a screen. He records what he sees on the screen of his gadget. He rarely glances up to gaze directly at his subject matter.

The digital camera is more forgiving and permissive. Errors can be instantly deleted. The whole experience is characterized by an urgency and immediacy that is absent from the analog equivalent. The digital camera allows its user to experiment with cost-free and, therefore, risk-free alternatives. It transforms the whole procedure of shooting pictures into a spontaneous, even irreverent, experience. With the digital apparatus visuals are a public good.

Environmental facts that used to serve as external constraints on use of the analog camera - the quantity and angle of light, for instance - are now compensated for by special settings in its digital successor. The typical gadget provides for preset "templates" that capture the moment in an optimal manner, removing obstacles and limitations posed by the photographer's physical surroundings.

The digital photo is never a finished product. It can be downloaded onto a storage device (a computer's hard disk, the Internet) and there edited with software applications. Reality is thus rendered tentative and negotiable, a declaration of intent rather than a final statement.

The Map as the New Media Metaphor

Moving images used to be hostages to screens, both large (cinema) and small (television). But, the advent of broadband and the Internet has rendered visuals independent of specific hardware and, therefore, portable. One can watch video on a bewildering array of devices, wired and wireless, and then e-mail the images, embed them in blogs, upload and download them, store them online ("cloud computing") or offline, and, in general, use them as raw material in mashups or other creative endeavours.

With the aid of set-top boxes such as TiVo's, consumers are no longer dependent on schedules imposed by media companies (broadcasters and cable operators). Time shifting devices - starting with the humble VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) - have altered the equation: one can tape and watch programming later or simply download it from online repositories of content such as YouTube or Hulu when convenient and desirable.

Inevitably, these technological transitions have altered the media experience by fragmenting the market for content. Every viewer now abides by his or her own idiosyncratic program schedule and narrowcasts to "friends" on massive social networks. Everyone is both a market for media and a distribution channel with the added value of his or her commentary, self-generated content, and hyperlinked references.

Mutability cum portability inevitably lead to anarchy. To sort our way through this chaotic mayhem, we have hitherto resorted to search engines, directories, trusted guides, and the like. But, often these Web 1.0 tools fall far short of our needs and expectations. Built to data mine and sift through hierarchical databases, they fail miserably when confronted with multilayered, ever-shifting, chimerical networks of content-spewing multi-user interactions.

The future is in mapping. Maps are the perfect metaphor for our technological age. It is time to discard previous metaphors: the filing cabinet or library (the WIMP GUI - Graphic User Interface - of the personal computer, which included windows, icons, menus, and a pointer) and the screen (the Internet browser).

Cell (mobile) phones will be instrumental in the ascendance of the map. By offering GPS and geolocation services, cellphones are fostering in their users geographical awareness. The leap from maps that refer to the user's location in the real world to maps that relate to the user's coordinates in cyberspace is small and unavoidable. Ultimately, the two will intermesh and overlap: users will derive data from the Internet and superimpose them on their physical environment in order to enhance their experience, or to obtain more and better information regarding objects and people in their surroundings.

Note on the iPhone - Interview granted to San Jose Mercury Sun, June 2007

The iPhone is the culmination and reification of a few such trends and, to hazard a guess, will, indeed, be proven in hindsight to have been even more important than the iPod or even the Blackberry. But importance does not always translate to sales. In commercial terms, the iPhone is comparable to the Mac, not to the iPod. It is too geeky and nerdy to become a household staple. It will be supplanted by something simpler to operate, accessible, and less intimidating, not to mention less expensive and more universal (e.g., not pledged to one phone service provider, like AT&T).

So, why is it important?

Because, though severely limited by way of options and features, the iPhone embodies the seamless convergence of erstwhile separate appliances such as the digital camera, the MP player, the mobile phone, voicemail, and the PC. It is, therefore, the first true proponent of ubiquitous (anywhere) computing. Its connection to iTunes also makes it the first representative of a workable on-the-go infotainment center (though mobile phone are far from ideal venues as far as video goes).

Doubtlessly, it will be succeeded by far more versatile and feature-rich versions. Undoubtedly, it will face stiff competition. But, whether like iPod, it will maintain a first mover advantage remains to be seen. I doubt it.

QR Codes: the Ubiquitous Content Management System

QR (Quick Response) codes are graphical barcodes: square black dots arranged in a grid on a white background. Subject to the installation of an app, they can be scanned by devices such as smartphones and digital cameras and call up text, videos, audio snippets, and other digitized content. QR codes can be printed or pasted onto any flat surface: paper, walls, screens, or windows.

These features allow QR codes to be deployed in unique and intriguing ways. Consider the following:

1.    Identify specific items within a product category and track them;

2.    Track, record, and monitor time and workflows (by asking workers to scan specific QR codes along the production line, for instance);

3.    Document and content management;

4.    Printed on promotional materials and products, QR codes can serve as a marketing tool. When scanned they can call up videos, texts, forms, and even reservation modules;

5.    QR codes can be integrated into existing payment systems. When scanned they can charge a mobile wallet and leverage NFC (Near Field Communication) technologies to effect transactions;

6.    QR Codes can be printed on disposable tablecloths in restaurants and hotels to yield the day’s special offers; information about dishes and ingredients; beverages and refreshments; tourist attractions nearby; the professional resume of the chef and his staff; the history of the establishment; etc. New QR codes can be added and old ones discarded in future editions of the tablecloths, thus rendering the surface of every table a virtual TV;

7.    QR codes can encode an entire curriculum of studies in a single brochure. Students will simply scan the relevant squares in accordance with a timetable to call up content on their laptops (text, homework, lab exercises, videos, primary source materials), or to communicate with their tutors/teachers via chat;

8.    In the form of wallpaper, window stickers, and refrigerator magnets, QR codes can contain and lead to information about the house, or building; its occupants; their vocations and avocations; pets; holiday photo and video albums; preferred weather, sound and colour schemes called up on hanging TV or computer screens; and even chores, laundry programs, instructions for handymen, visitors, and guests, and shopping lists.

9.    Integrated with management and tasking applications, ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), and CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software, QR codes can facilitate communication between clients or users and suppliers or providers. They can also smooth and enhance collaborative efforts.

10. Added to newspapers and magazines, QR codes can call up supplemental text, audio, and video material: interviews, references, supporting documents, and contextual augmented information.

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