Archive for January, 2010

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With Just A Wave Of Her Hand…

My thoughts have been swirling around the point of interaction for some time now. And by that I mean the point of human-computer interaction. To connect up the threads, at first, I’ve began looking backwards. Perhaps all the way to the Jacquard loom and the punch cards used to control the patterns, and then on to the punch cards used on the early mainframes.

I’m sure there were many steps in between, but my mind races ahead to the command line. This extremely powerful and elegant point of interaction has never really been superseded. It continues to be the favored mode of interaction for a number of software development activities. But it was the graphical user interface that provided a point of interaction that changed the medium.

Doug Engelbart’s 1968 demo of the work undertaken by the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) gives us all the fundamental modes of interaction. The keyboard, the mouse/trackpad, the headset, hypertext and the graphic user interface. Within that set of interaction points, we’ve started to expand the repertoire. With the introduction of the iPhone, the trackpad gesture has gained increasing importance.

On a separate track we’ve seen video games controllers become ever more complex. The point of interaction for the game starts to reflect the kind of speed and complexity we create in our virtual gaming worlds.

It’s with the Wii and Project Natal that we start to see the surface of the trackpad detached from the computing device, extruded into three dimensions, and then dematerialized. The interaction gestures can now be captured in the space around us. Originally, the graphic user interface (mouse clicks, windows, desktop) was criticized for the limitations it imposed.

The other key development was the displacement of computing from the local device to the Network of connected devices. The interaction point is now to a new Networked medium. This is the converged form of what McLuhan understood as television. The development of new interaction modes traces a path toward opening to greater numbers of participants the new medium. Beyond mass media, there is the media of connected micro-communities.

Popular culture and music culture has always had a big impact on the development of cutting-edge technology. When we think of controlling technology through hand gestures, we can start with the ether-wave theremin created by Leon Theremin.

And then there was Jimi Hendrix playing Wild Thing at Monterrey Pop, gesturing wildly to pull sound out his stratocaster.

This is one of those in-between moments. The wave unleashed by xerox-parc and the augmentation research center is about to be followed by a new wave. The signs are all around us.

Pencil Sketch #2

Pencil Sketch, 2010011

Nexus One, iPhone and Designing For Sustainability

The technology news streams have been filled with coverage of the new Google phone called the Nexus One. It’s impact will be significant. Now there are two “phones” in the new landscape of mobile computing. Two are required to accelerate both innovation and diffusion of the technology. The Nexus One will both spur, and be spurred on by, the iPhone.

Much of the coverage has focused on comparisons of the two devices with regard to feature set and approach to the carriers. On the product strategy side, the story of the early Macintosh vs. Windows battle is being replayed by the pundits with Google cast in the role of Microsoft, and Android as the new Windows. The conventional wisdom is that Apple lost to Microsoft in the battle of operating systems, and that history will repeat itself with the iPhone.

A quick look at the top five U.S. companies by market capitalization shows Microsoft, Google and Apple holding down three of those spots. Apple’s so-called losing strategy has resulted in a market cap of $190 Billion and a strong, vibrant business. If history repeating itself leads to this kind of financial performance, I’m sure Apple would find that more than acceptable.

But it was watching Gary Hustwit’s film Objectified that brought forward a comparison that I haven’t seen in all the crosstalk. Following up his film, Helvetica, which documented the history of the typeface, Hustwit takes a look at the world of industrial design and designers:

Objectified is a feature-length documentary about our complex relationship with manufactured objects and, by extension, the people who design them. It’s a look at the creativity at work behind everything from toothbrushes to tech gadgets. It’s about the designers who re-examine, re-evaluate and re-invent our manufactured environment on a daily basis. It’s about personal expression, identity, consumerism, and sustainability.

Industrial design used to be about designing the look and feel of a product— the designer was brought in to make it pretty and usable. Now the whole lifecycle of the product is considered in the design process. I’ve found John Thackara’s book In The Bubble, and Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things to be very eloquent on the subject. Looking beyond how the phone works for the user, there’s the environmental impact of the industrial manufacturing process and disposing of the phone at the end of its life.

It was Craig Burton’s Choix Vert Action Card that brought Apple’s policies on industrial design and the environment into view for me. While searching Google for something related to Apple, the Choix Vert card adds a thumbprint logo to socially responsible companies on the results page. Apple sports the Choix Vert mark, HTC, producer of the Nexus One, doesn’t. Currently Apple provides environmental impact reports for each of their products. Apple’s so-called ‘closed’ approach to their products results in a unique ability to control, not only the user experience, but how the product is manufactured, and what happens at the end of its life.

Google’s modular approach to their phone means they can claim they aren’t responsible for manufacturing or disposal. The Android phone run-time will be put on a variety of phones with manufactured by companies with varying degrees of social responsibility.

Early reports from users indicate that the Nexus One’s user interface could use a little more polish. I expect that will happen as the software is iterated and the user experience refined. But beyond feature sets and carrier costs, I hope Nexus One users will ask Google about the environmental impact of their phone.

Every year about 130 million cellphones are retired, for every Nexus One that’s purchased, it’s likely that another cell phone will go out of service. Google is now in the consumer hardware business, and that brings with it some responsibilities they aren’t used to considering. Given their corporate motto, I’m sure they’ll do the right thing.

Virtual Machines, Run-times and Turtles All The Way Down

There’s this idea of standing with your own two feet on the ground. We know which way is up.

I’ve been thinking about the implications of the virtual machine. Our friends at Wikipedia give the following definition:

A virtual machine (VM) is a software implementation of a machine (i.e. a computer) that executes programs like a physical machine.

Of course, then they add that some virtual machines may have no correspondence to actual hardware. One of the more common uses of a virtual machine is to create a software version of a computer operating system. On my Macintosh computer, I run a program called Parallels that allows me to run Windows, and Windows programs, side-by-side with Macintosh programs. The Macintosh runs an application that runs an operating system that runs an application. The ‘two-feet on the ground’ aspect of this is that the Macintosh operating system talks to the hardware— it’s this that provides the ground on which virtual machines can be deployed. The speed of today’s hardware/software systems makes the latency between the machine and the virtual machine almost unnoticeable.

Once the operating system is virtualized it starts to resemble the run-time system. It’s an environment where application code can be run. As we look around, we find a number of things that might fit into this category. For instance, Android, which is called an operating system, is really a virtual operating system that sits on top of the Linux operating system.

When people talk about a Web Operating System, often I’m not sure what they’re referring to. But in the model of the virtual machine, the Web run-times enabled by the operating system include: webkit, gecko and trident. In the sphere of vector graphics animations, the run-times include: Flash and Silverlight. In Silverlight 4.x, an application can contain an HTML page, which is interpreted by the local default Web browser, and that HTML page can contain a Flash object. The in-and-outs of things start to get a little complicated.

Putting our feet firmly on the ground, we can see that it all starts with the hardware and the operating system. Nothing happens without these foundation pieces. This is the bedrock on which we stand. Although this perspective begins to sound a little like the story about turtles from Stephen Hawking‘s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which starts:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

While we may look at the computer hardware and operating system as the ground, we could also turn things on their head. What if, instead, we look at the environment where many virtual machines can operate as the new ground. Copernicus rather than Ptolemy. The hardware and its operating system are just and entry point into this Network of virtual machines. The one is a path to the many, and out of the many, there is one (E pluribus unum). Or as someone once said, the Network is the computer.

There’s this new idea of standing with your own two feet on the ground. We know which way is up.

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