Beyond Scifi: Design For Surfaces and Big Screens touched on a few different ideas in contextualizing futuristic UI design for real world usage with current technology. Many of the new platforms we’re using like touch tables, touch walls, and interactive TVs, seem straight out of sci-fi movies. However, in movies they’re often used as cinematic props or storytelling devices. Things that blow us away at the theater might actually be boring or frustrating for an actual user. So I pulled out some common challenge areas and decision points that can keep futuristic platforms feeling cool and futuristic for users. The key areas I’ll be posting blog articles about are:
1. Communal Computing
2. Modes of Interaction
3. Leniency of Input
4. Modes of Free Gesture
Note that the focus of the design discussion is on average users and if/how new platforms will become a part of everyday lives and culture. When talking about specialized professional uses like industrial design, architecture, film editing, health/science, etc., the UI may indeed mimic sci-fi imagery more directly.
1. Communal Computing
This is the aspect I feel will establish large screens as their own unique platform and makes them truly different from being just a bigger version of something people already have. The elements that provide the basis for communal computing are shown in the diagram below.
– Large scale screens are often used in sci-fi for their cinematic and immersive qualities. However, IRL, scale is primarily used to reach multiple people. A large screen for a single user is often hard to use, not private, and unnecessarily expensive.
– Interactivity just refers to the fact that the screen accepts user input and has processing capabilities as opposed to only being a display (like a movie theatre screen or billboard).
– Natural input like touch, gesture, or voice is often used in films because it’s novel, demonstrative or literal, and it appears effortless. IRL, natural input is easily accessible in casual situations.
These qualities overlap to create the new idea of communal computing. This multi-user context is a key idea in strategizing for these new platforms. The resulting use case combinations are not often considered by interactive designers but can make for exciting new experiences.
Considerations for Communal Computing
With multiple users, who controls the screen and how? Video games are often a great starting point in addressing these questions. A familiar way to deal with this situation is to let one user control what’s going on. In early multi-player games, the system told users whose turn it was (the old 1-up, 2-up).
Another variant is to have users themselves figure it out as they do with the TV remote. Though these are not new techniques they are still very effective when 1 person is controlling the screen at a time since they bring clarity. Advances in input such as multiple controllers or natural user interface (NUI) actually complicate single user control since users either are confused as to who is controlling the input or in conflict.
To accommodate multiple users at once, split-screens are a simple solution. It allows for collaborative learning in that new users can both watch and participate. They can establish an understanding of the computer and a rapport other users gradually.
Though more complex, allowing multiple users shared access to the same screen space where they can engage and connect with each other is ideal. A combination of shared screen approaches can be used at different points in interaction and for different features.
With multiple users on a screen, user recognition is not a given as it is with personal computing platforms. Most personal computers and mobile devices are built for one user or allow for login on the very top level of entry (requiring users to back out of the system). And the degree of personalization they enable with stored account logins, cookies and innovative algorithms is extremely high. This presents a challenge in delivering the type of easy access and features users have to expect with the casual entry and exit nature of group computing. Login often cannot be automatic and even once login is achieved, the user may be hard to track. Communal platforms are inherently not private – entering, displaying or storing personal information can create serious problems.
Schematic addressed this problem in the touch wall designed for the Cannes Lions festival in 2009 by using RFID tags in attendees badges. This was an effortless way to tie users to personalized data onscreen and felt like magic to unsuspecting users.
When such a solution isn’t possible, another approach is to find value in group identity or shared experiences. Find other factors to inform algorithms (ie. time of day, usage patterns, hand size, voice quality) to provide benefits associated with personalization without knowing distinct identities. Overall, strike a balance, make it unobtrusive, and think of cost to payoff.
The Computer’s Role
A final note about communal computing is to consider the computer’s “personality”. In a group situation, the features chosen for a system and the style of implementation will result in giving the computer a role in the social dynamic. It can be a patient teacher that is straightforward and gives its audience instruction, prompting, and encouragement. It can be more elusive and experimental like an art installation. Alternatively it can be a dumb robot putting too much responsibility on user initiation. Or it can be annoying, like “Clippy” constantly trying to help or a used car salesman shouting at people to buy their product.
One interesting idea is to imagine a touch surface in a semi-public setting (like a conference) acting as good host, introducing people based on data unknown to the people themselves. Conference goers are often try to network and make face-to-face connections. While there are a glut of social networking applications on personal platforms, the transition from a cyberspace connection to a real world connection is still a barrier. At a communal computer that has background information on its users, the display could alert the users as to some commonality in profession, geography, or common event they are attending. Context is important and there is even some degree of stage-fright for some users who go up to a large display without knowing what to do. But creating very basic connections with and between users makes for powerful “wow” moments.
For all the capabilities and conveniences our personal devices give us they sometimes lead us into our own little digital cocoons. Communal computing is inspiring in breaking our attachment with devices and interacting with the people around us whether it be strangers, colleagues, or our families. This leads us to the unexpected. Far from the cold or dystopian visions of sci-fi, these technologies can allow for the true social connections that we crave.