Sublety and Nuance in Physical Interaction

I had a great conversation during tea time at Adaptive Path this evening with Jesse James Garrett, about the role of subtlety and nuance in physical interaction design. Central to the conversation was Microsoft’s Project Natal, an upcoming system for the Xbox 360 that lets you use your full body to control games.

While large motions, like punching and kicking the air, make for an impressive flourish, it’s interesting to consider what a system like this would look like in a few years, as it becomes increasingly fine-tuned. What if it knows where each one of my fingers is, like a musical instrument? What kind of interactive applications could this have in a non-game environment? Or, as Jesse mused, how can we learn from gaming to bring more game-related themes, from the concept of play to the interactive vocabularies we establish therein, into everyday computer-mediated interactions?

Part of Jesse’s work on the Ajax approach to web development was based on a desire to make web interactions feel more game-like in nature. Before we had instant asynchronous updates, whether backed by XML or not, the web had a distinctly evaluative feel to it. The cost of submitting web input was high, as it resulted in a long pause before I would know whether or not my submission had been accepted. Games typically offer instantaneous feedback and so this delayed, high-cost transaction felt more like taking an exam than playing a game. Thus, the web-two-point-oh-social-media-user-generated-content revolution is not about Ajax or Prototype or Scriptaculous or jQuery or MooTools, but about removing the barriers of time and cost previously associated with contributing to the web.

And so, with sophisticated physical input devices on the horizon, how can we use the most familiar input devices ever, our own bodies, to enhance our computer-mediated experiences? Further, given the fine-grained control we have over our physical selves, how can we draw on the rich human tradition of having a body and allow people to interact with a system in a more subtle and nuanced manner?

Just something I’m pondering.