Hans and Umbach: Miscellaneous thoughts regarding the embodied future of interaction design.

Okay. It’s been awhile. I’ve taken some time off. From this, as well as from embodied interaction.

But let’s get back at it. Embodied interaction, that is.

I’ve had quite some time to decompress about this, take a pause and see what sort of ideas keep bubbling to the surface. And the results are not surprising. Or are surprising. Or whatever.

On a postmodern interpretation of technology, and rejecting a sense of inevitability.

Jaron Lanier. And questioning underlying assumptions, tacit assumptions, the colorless, odorless nature of our technological surroundings. Of our environments. Render explicit to consciousness that our ecologies are not inevitable, that they are not natural, that they are not predestined, that they are constructed and hold no truths. That is not to say they are completely relative, but just that they are subjective. Indeed. Privacy on the internet. That you cannot hear people from your car. Certain responsibilities, the lines we draw between designer and user, producer and consumer, etc.

Who is responsible when my gas pedal sticks? How about when I swerve to miss a deer? Or if I hit the deer? Should the car allow me to swerve so strong that I can flip it? Should it never be allowed to exceed 55 mph? What is the logical limit for the top speed? What is safe? What is safe enough? Given infinite resources, given no technological constraints, where would we find ourselves?

On the future of screen-mediated interactions.

Screens, for instance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with screens. A screen is just a collection of pixels. RGB emissive light, photons in this case. However, they could just as well be CMYK dots, like a newspaper. Like a magazine. Imagine how that would change our relationship with paper. Indeed, in that case you could pinch-zoom the 2010 Rand McNally U.S. Road Atlas. You’ve already tried that. Jake’s already tried to slide-unlock his wallet.

There is a feedback loop here. Digital technology influences how we interact with our analog environments. Not just vice versa. Twenty years ago the analog interaction of operating a Rolodex offered a logical metaphor for the digital interaction of browsing an address book. But no more. How many 15-year-olds today do you think have operated a Rolodex? How many do you think have operated an iPod? Or an iPhone? One metaphor for interaction here can no longer effectively be leveraged. Methinks the metaphor of the Rolodex interaction is dead.

So, you take Iron Man 2, with its transparent glass screens, and you think, man, that looks cool at first, but then you realize trying to focus on flat content projected on a transparent screen would be somewhat straining. But. If you can project an image on clear glass like that, who is to say you cannot also project a black background? And now, your office may consist of hundreds of screens, but when they’re off they’re transparent. Open. Airy. They barely exist. And the fact that it can be transparent, or can project its own black background for familiar contrast, or yes, that they can be transparent, opens up all sorts of options for augmented reality.

Though, for a truly transparent glass screen (which is merely transitory technology on the way to in-air displays) you come up against problems of auto-stereoscopy and determining the relativistic perspective of the user’s viewpoint… parallax and the like. I move my head, and the display needs to update accordingly. Or, what if I’m sharing the same augmented reality screen with someone else? They need to see a different display, from a different angle, than myself. Here we need some sort of holography, that projects a unique display along all emissive points.

When we think of screens, we need to think beyond the current technological implementation of the screen, and instead think of the screen metaphorically. What are the terms we use to construct our thinking of this display? Can we touch it? Do we touch it? If we touch it does it get greasy? Not necessarily. I predict in a few years that nanotechnology will provide us with materials, perhaps inspired by the leaves of the lotus, that collect no dust, accept no grease (even from the infinitely-greasy human hand). Imagine if all glass were made of such a material.

Is a screen an extension of a book? A viewport into another world? A wormhole? How we align ourselves, socially and culturally, with these artifacts greatly influences how we perceive them, how we conceptualize them, how we imagine ourselves using them. We look back at old science fiction movies and laugh at their cornball conceptualization of the future, but it’s important to recognize that every piece of science fiction is a product of a unique society and culture. Especially mainstream science fiction (or depictions of the future, as seen in Iron Man) needs to consider their sociocultural situatedness.

Ironically, technology in science fiction needs to appear futuristic, but not so much so that it seems unbelievable and unachievable given current understandings of the world. I recently read that plants may use quantum entanglement to maximize the efficiency of photosynthesis, and that quantum entanglement may allow birds to “see” the Earth’s magnetic field, aiding in migration. If these theories turn out to hold weight and thusly become popularized, they will influence our shared, intersubjective world, and become a resource that science fiction can leverage for believably futuristic renderings of the, well, future.

On questioning hegemonies.

I am realizing that one of my roles as a designer is to question, or at least render explicit, the tacit assumptions of the hegemonies in which we conduct our lives. As interaction designers, we have inherited the legacy, a powerful and important legacy at that, of a scientific approach to computation, as well as an initially cognitive-systems approach to interaction. The scientific, non-humanistic origins of our field, I believe, continue to silently influence the way we think about and talk about interaction.

There is a strong, increasingly strong, reaction against these rational histories of human-computer interaction, towards a more experiential model that considers the whole person, their emotions, desires, goals and fears, not only as something to design for, but something to design with. The user as a medium for design. Indeed, the interpretative abilities of the user are an incredible resource that can, nay must, be effectively leveraged by our designs.

The value in a design is not objectively measurable, and is not contained in the designed artifact itself, but in the union between the artifact and the user. The simplest designs are compelling not merely because they are simple, but because they so gracefully leverage the rich intersubjective world of the user (or users) to give them meaning. As phenomenology tells us, these meanings are situated not in the artifact, but in the consciousness of the user herself. Interaction design is concerned not with the objective world, but the messy, subjective world of interpretation. Phenomenology is at the very core of interaction design; concerned with reality as it is revealed to and manifest in consciousness.

I am proud that interaction design is increasing concerned with the messy subjective world, that it realizes that an account of the objective qualities of the world are insufficient to design compelling interactions. Nevertheless, I believe there is still significant work to be done in shrugging off the scientific cloak of computation, so that we can truly design future-facing interactions. I believe certain metaphors used for describing our systems have hung on past their prime, and silently and insidiously damage progress in our field. Most notably, as I have described recently, is the conceptualization of a virtual world that exists independently of the physical world.

On dispelling the myth of the virtual world.

While the difference between the physical and digital is certainly important from a technology and computation perspective, I believe it is meaningless from an interactive perspective. Nevertheless, we still speak of making virtual friends, roaming virtual worlds, or downloading digital information. I believe this categorization creates a false boundary between the physical and digital worlds, mischaracterizing the digital and trivializing the real, physical, embodied interactions that happen, that must happen, when a user interacts with the so-called virtual world.

Interacting with a friend in World of Warcraft is greatly different than interacting with them when they’re standing in your living room, but not because one is a “virtual” interaction and the other is a “real” interaction. No, they are both physical interactions, one mediated in co-present physical space (with all the available expressive faculties that come along with such co-presence), and one mediated through keyboard, mouse, screen and audio. To characterize the latter as “virtual” is to casually dismiss the embodied interactions that must happen in order for the conversation to take place, and to neglect possible opportunities to make the interaction more richly embodied.

On disentangling interaction design from its computational roots.

Computer science must necessarily distinguish between hardware and software layers, either of which can branch into any multitude of sub-disciplines. However, users do not necessarily make any such distinction. I have observed college freshmen working with computers, and their conceptual model of computers often does not distinguish between operating system and application, or even local (as in, on their computer) or remote (as in, on the internet). To them, a computer (or even computation as a whole) is one amorphous interactive mass, which whether we like it or not, is how we have to design it.

Also. We must design in the abstract, but ultimately our design are interacted with at the ultimate particular level. People never abstractly interact with a product. They only particularly, specifically, interact with something.

Or something.