30 January 2014

New devices, alien worlds

I wrote earlier about the way in which new devices with curved, round or irregular shaped displays would need new standards and vocabulary in order to describe the interactions with those screens and surfaces, partly because those surfaces are likely to be touch sensitive. It’s not an insurmountable problem, and the biggest issue may well be the politics involved in getting professionals from a variety of manufacturers and background’s to agree. That being said, there are authors who’ve developed a lot of time and thought to the description of novel geometries and I’d like to think that when standards committees meet, they’re going to channel some of the greats of science fiction.

Disc shaped, or round screens
An “always up”, round screen would make a lot of sense for tablets of the future (if Apple are reading this, I’d quite like royalties). We’d have to get used to seeing web-pages cut or scaled in interesting ways, but for many other applications including games and creative apps, there would be many advantages (not least because our eyes are “round” and much of our visual field is wasted with traditional screens). For movements around the screen or involving rotating, we have clockwise and anti-clockwise to fall back on, but what about moving to and from the centre of the screen. Perhaps the best known vocabulary for describing a surface of this type is found in the work of Terry Pratchett who coined four cardinal directions of “Hubward”, “Rimward”, “Turnwise” and “Widershins” to describe navigation on his Discworld. Turnwise and Widershins only really work for a disc already in motion, but hubward and rimward are the words we’re going to need the day we get an iDisc.
Rings, bracelets and wearable tech
As we start to see devices like the Smarty Ring, become more popular we’re going to be looking at non-visual interfaces that work with touch, motion or other forms of manipulation (the link here is to an excellent paper from the University of Glasgow... it’s well worth a look as it gives a good summary of what can be done and isn’t trying to sell anything). Describing the control of such a devices is going to be tricky, in part because the device can rotate around the arm, as well as being touched or manipulated by the voice. I couldn’t really find anything that worked for touch sensitive bands in professional or academic literature but an answer comes, yet again, from a fictional world. This time we turn to Greg Bear and his writing set in the fictional Halo universe. He uses turnwise and crosswise to describe movements around and across a band respectively and this could work when coupled with “left”, “right”, “clockwise” and “anticlockwise”. I initially toyed with the idea of using the geometry and layout of the human body to help with the descriptions, but realised that these devices may be worn on either arm by left or right handed.
Projected space
By projected space, I mean 3D environments created by devices such as Kinect, Google Glass, and the very Minority Report-esque Leap Motion controller. I feel that many of these systems will be dictated by the intent and application of the software and hardware being used, but it’s quite obvious that any directions being given will need a reference point. An example of this being done well can be found in the work of John G Hemry who tells tales of wars in space together with a spatial reference system he’s thought out that allows for ships to quickly orientate themselves in the 3D environment of a new solar system. Documenting a system that relies on the body for imput would not just need a way to describe the like this may well not look forward at all, as what we’re really talking about is whole body movement. The language and presentation of the documentation may borrow heavily from descriptions of other physical movements, whether that be those found in martial arts text books, reference works on magic tricks or even the Karma Sutra.

Answers on a postcard (or in the comments section) for what you think the biggest new interface will be, and how we could go about describing it.


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