Design by Fire 2010… and how I learned to hate my camera
Bill Buxton was coming to the Design by Fire 2010 conference in Amsterdam. That was the only thing I needed to hear to sign up for it. The man is a legend in the human-computer interaction field and his talks are usually very interesting, inspiring and full of great insights. Of course he did not disappoint.
I had to stand on the back of the room where his talk was taking place, just so that I could video record the whole thing without disturbing the people sitting behind me with my camera blocking their view. He started the talk by addressing the audience in perfect Dutch and putting on the jersey of the Dutch national team with the name “Buxton” on his back, in a gesture to celebrate the fact that Oranje had trashed Sweden 4-1 the night before (you gotta love the man!). He then proceeded to delight us for about an hour with his view on what Natural User Interfaces are really all about.
And I was a happy man! I could just enjoy the moment and would be able to review it later on in the comfort of my house to make notes and take it all in… that is IF my stupid camera hadn’t decided to break down 0,0005 seconds before the end of the talk and erase any data that had been saved so far on my SD card. Disaster!
So unfortunately I won’t be able to share the video this time. But I figured that a two-part review and notes of some of the talks which I found most appealing is in order. I’ll start of course with the man himself and in a later post I’ll have a go with the rest of the lineup and my general impression of the conference.
So here goes:
Bill Buxton: “NUI – What’s in a name?”
Bill had basically two main messages to share with us:
- It takes about 20 years for a technology to become a “billion dollar” idea in our field. All the “break throughs” we see today are actually at least 20 years old!
- Natural User Interfaces (NUI) are all about the context of use. In his own words, “Everything is BEST for something and WORSE for something else“.
To illustrate his first point, he spent a good deal of the presentation showing us plenty of examples on how most of the interaction technologies that are so in vogue these days, such as (multi)touch and gesture recognition (pinching to zoom for example), have been around for a looooooong time (Buxton himself was playing around with multitouch interfaces back in the early 80′s), but have just broken into the “billion dollar idea” realm because they are finally mature enough for the mainstream.
He describes this phenomenon as the “Long Nose of Innovation”, in which an interaction technology takes somewhere around 20 years and goes through several phases in research and early applications before they jump out of the “radar” scope and into everyday life. He therefore strongly encourages designers to keep their eyes under that radar instead of just skimming over what is currently sticking out.
His second point and the soul of the talk, was that Natural User Interfaces are all about the context of use. The full body gesture recognition of the Xbox Kinect is natural in the living room with your friends, but you will have trouble implementing such an interaction paradigm in an airplane sit for example. It’s not only about the physical context, but also about the social.
The multimodality of the interaction also plays a role in how natural an interface feels. We are used in our daily lives to perform complex coordinated processes with both our hands even when we don’t think about it. For example when we are writing on a piece of paper we use our dominant hand to maneuver the pen, but we also use our other hand to constantly move the paper and thus keeping the focus of our dominant hand on a certain place. Yet our current interfaces more often than not, do not allow us to interact with the systems with this multimodality.
“Natural” is also about the integration of devices and systems in a natural flow of interaction. For example the fact that once you get on your car it is able to pick up the signal from your mobile phone via bluetooth and in essence merges with your phone to become one.
Here are some of the gems I got out of his presentation:
“You can learn much more from the failures than just from the successes”
“Mediocrely implemented technologies can lead to failure (e.g. early implementation of trackpads) but that is not the technology’s fault, is the designer’s fault”
“Fail is good, you learn from it. Just don’t do it too often”
“The Graphical User Interface is designed to be used with one hand (to use the mouse) and the only thing that requires two hands is typing… which is the one thing that could be done with one hand and a pen”
“eBay is the best low cost prototyping tool”
“Everything is best for something and worse for something else”