09 July 2013

We have ways of making you think!

A good friend of mine is a developer at North 51. Recently we had an interesting discussion about mind control. Not the type of mind control that would let me unleash hordes of hypno-zombies as a tranced and swaying flash-mob at the local Tesco (although having sacrificed last Sunday morning in that edifice of consumerism, I’m not entirely sure someone hasn’t already pulled this off), but rather the kind of mind control that would let me think my pointer across the screen, or these words onto the page.

Whilst even this seems far fetched, headsets like the one pictured here let people play Angry Birds with just the power of their minds. Angry Birds is a fairly simple game, essentially involving the movement of a mouse/pointer and a single click or dragging action (depending on whether you are playing on a PC or a tablet). The fact that the description of the game varies between a tablet and a PC gives some idea of the issues we might face when giving instructions for a user whose interface is their own mind. The cursor in Angry Birds (PC) is a hand, so are people playing the game thinking “I’ll move the mouse around with my hand” or “I’ll move the hand around with my mouse” or even “I’ll move the hand around with my hand via the mouse” (think of your own variant). Any guidance for play-by-brain computing not only has to account for these differences when describing the desired end result but must also cover the thought processes that are involved in reaching it. I have been thinking about how this could work in practice:

You are feeling sleepy
Instructional materials could use techniques from the relaxation or hynotherapy fields to induce a non-cluttered state of mind before operating the game/robot surgeon/share dealing platform. This is not really a new idea. Educators have been springboarding off the work of Soviet scientist Georgi Lozanov to create non-threatening, trance-like language classes filled with baroque music and a brain boosting vibe for decades now, and there’s no reason it could not be coming to technical documentation near you soon.
Enter the Sandman
Sandbox environments are big in the gaming community, and as documentation gets increasingly gamified there’s a lot to be said for blurring the line between the real situation and a simulation. (Pilots do this already, the theory being that in a simulator no-one can hear the passengers screaming, praying or bouncing off the walls.) Yu-kai Chou divides gamification into White Hat (nice) and Black Hat (bad) gamification. A nice happy sandbox environment with all the tips, hints and lessons being presented in a calming and constructive way would blend the best of usability with the logic of well-written instructions and a little bit of Zen.

The future is probably a lot closer than you think on this one, so I’d be really interested to hear from any others (technical communicators or otherwise) who’ve given this fascinating field a bit of thought.