Tuesday 25 January 2011

TEI2011 Keynote: Bounce Back by Gilian Crampton Smith

Gilian Crampton Smith is one of the people that massively influenced the field of interaction design from the very beginning. She is currently working in Venice: www.interaction-venice.com. Nearly 20 years back in London Durrell Bishop was one of her students. She pointed out that the central insight of the early work was "We know how to control objects by physical means". This insight has since become a basic motivation for tangible interfaces and embodied interaction. Closely linked to this is the complexity of interaction. To me one great point with designing tangible user interfaces is that you are forced to come up with a simple solution. Overall the argument was that embodied interaction works because it draws on knowledge we have. An example is that two physical things cannot be in exactly the same place and another one is that things stay where they are if there is no force moving them. There are clear limitations to the interaction with physical objects that give indications how to use it; she referenced a paper on an exploration of physical manipulation [1].

As one example Gilian showed the marble answering machine concept video from 1992. To me this video is a great example that shows the power of a concept video. Using a simple animation in this concept video enables viewers to understand the idea and interactions very quickly. I like the simplicity and clarity of this video - it would be very useful for teaching. Hopefully it will made publicly available; see below the bad-quality copy I took with my mobile. A good quality version ist at http://vimeo.com/19930744

One interesting point was a reflection on the shortcomings of the traditional view of interaction being based on input and output. Gilian argued that output should be separated in feedback and results. Input is categorized in according the interaction required, such as simple (e.g. text, minimal movement), medium (e.g. GUI), maximum (e.g. musical instrument, movement of the whole body). The feedback is related to the sense human have, and includes modalities such as visual, auditory, tangible, kinesthetic, proprioception. Results are related to feedback but are oriented on the outcome. Results may be visual (e.g. symbolic, words, icon, films); auditory (e.g. sounds, words or music) or physical such as touch (e.g. massage machine) or movement.

Gilian went on to the question: "Why aren't tangible, embedded and embodied interfaces out there in our everyday world?" For me the most important answer she gave is that it is hard to do them. It is very difficult to created sensor based interaction in a way that users understand it and that it feels natural to use. Counter examples where people got it wrong are those many lights that go on when you are already half way up the stairs or the automatic doors where people wave their hands in order to open them. As much of the interaction technology in such systems is not visible people have a hard time figuring out how things work. Based on their (incomplete) experience base on a few interactions they will create their mental modal … which is often wrong and potentially leads to frustration. A further point she made is that creating physical interactive objects and things is difficult and involves a lot of different skills. In combination with the function it is difficult to get the aesthetics right. One very good example is how hard it is to the aesthetics of feel is right, as it includes a well balanced design taking into account touch, weight, balance, movement, and sound. Overall this requires a great passion for detail to get the quality of engineering right; Gilians examples for this was the AUDI advert where an Engineer opens and closes the car door and listens carefully. I think I have seen in 8 years back in the UK as part of the ad-campain "Vorsprung durch Technik". If anyone has a link to a copy please post it.

When I was in 2002 (or around this time) visiting her at Ivrea near Torino I was very much impressed by the creativity and inventiveness. In her talk she explained one approach to teaching I really like. The students get a device (e.g. an alarm clock, answering machine) without manual with the task to figure out how it works. While exploring the functionality they film themselves. Based on this they reflect on the design and then go on to do a completely new design for a device with a similar functionality (with the constraint that it cannot have buttons).

I like a reference to something Bruce Steering wrote. In short it basically says research is like crime; you need Means, Motivation and Opportunity.

Some further example she showed:
  • A communication device based candle: ceramic liaison. It is a bi-directional 1-bit communication device, that is esthetically pleasing. The state of the candle (real wax with fire) on either side is reflected by lighting up some ceramics on the other side.
  • A full body experience interaction device for controlling games: Collawobble. Using two bouncing balls a packman game can be controlled. One user controls with the bouncing X and the other Y.
Ellen Do posted 2 clips that were shown in the keynote and suggested a further one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oS6pwQqSY70

the marble answering machine video on http://vimeo.com/19930744

[1] Andrew Manches, Claire O'Malley, and Steve Benford. 2009. Physical manipulation: evaluating the potential for tangible designs. In Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Tangible and Embedded Interaction (TEI '09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 77-84. DOI=10.1145/1517664.1517688 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1517664.1517688