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Interface Design: Get Your Hands Off My Banana

[ Comments Off ]Posted on March 6, 2013 by admin in Technology

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

The future of device interfaces is probably hands off, but it looks like we’ll still be fingerpainting on windows for a while.

For about a decade until around 2008, I did a lot of work in web development, often focusing more on the UI/UX (user interface/user experience) end of things. Early on, I developed a concept that I often adhere to, which is “Give the Monkey a Banana”. The monkey, in this case, is of course the person we usually refer to more politely as the “user”. It was inspired by watching one of my first clients review a website I had just created for them. They did something I’ve seen dozens (if not hundreds) of times since. They kept clicking on things that gave no indication that they were links. What were they clicking on? They clicked on words they liked, or pictures they liked, with utter disregard for common visual cues like underlined text or mouseover effects. It hit me that first time, with that first client — the monkey wants a banana! To this day, that largely sums up my approach to interface design. What is the banana? How can we help the monkey get it? Which is a big part of why I’m excited about all the new things going on with interface design. This is a topic we’ve touched on a lot before; in fact one of our first posts back in 2008 was about digital interfaces for music, and more recently, I prattled on about the vague virtues of Windows 8 and my mild contempt for skeuomorphic design.

More recently, my personal frustration with computer interfaces has only accelerated with the purchase of a tablet. As much as I love the thing, it creates two problems. The first problem? If you use a tablet for a while, you’ll probably find yourself quickly and easily adopting gestures like swiping, pinching, and tapping. Pretty cool, very functional stuff. But soon, you’ll run into apps or websites that don’t respond to any of these gestures, or worse yet, the layout of a website (like the site you’re on right now!) will make it hard to even tap links because of type sizes and image layouts. So the first problem is the transition period to a new form of interaction. But the second problem is even more irksome in my opinion, and it is that in spite of the tech industry’s new focus on the second screen as a growth market, the last thing we need is another screen. While perusing How ‘Minority Report’ Trapped Us In A World Of Bad Interfaces on the other day, I ran across a link to piece called A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design, by Bret Victor. It’s probably one of the best summaries I’ve seen in a while of the problems we still face with interface design, the most obvious of which is what Victor calls “Pictures Under Glass”. No matter how cool the animation of an action is on your iPad, it’s still just a picture. And you’re still just dragging your finger around on a piece of glass, a dull experience – given our complexity as organisms that can grasp, see, and feel – that Victor calls a “Novocaine drip to the wrist”.

Why, when we have things like fingertip-tracking gesture technology or 3-D interaction, or even using brain waves as a control input almost at our er, fingertips, would we zero in on the dull and often less-than-useful action of “fingerpainting” on glass? Again, Bret Victor sums it up nicely, compiling in a single image all the amazing real-world examples of how this gesture is used in every day life:

Below are examples of just a few of the alternatives mentioned above, but take the time to check out that rant on interaction design. It examines the issue in an entertaining and insightful way. Maybe some day soon, you’ll be able to get your hand off my banana, but for now, you’re going to have to keep poking and pinching it. Read the rest of this entry »

I Have a Deep Dark Secret

[ Comments Off ]Posted on February 6, 2013 by admin in Technology

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

And when I decide to share it, you can rest assured I won’t do it on the upload site MEGA using the Silent Circle app on my iPhone.

If I sold you a lock and key for twenty dollars, and told you that no-one in the world would be able to unlock it except you, would you believe me? Probably not. And that’s the analogy I keep thinking of as a result of the recent launches of two services that are supposedly going to revolutionize privacy and file transfers. You may have already heard of one of these services; the infamous Kim Dotcom whose MegaUpload file sharing empire was taken down when he was arrested last year  launched MEGA last month. One of the cleverest things about the new service is probably the hilarious domain name “”, because the basic idea behind MEGA is simply that, as they themselves put it: “All files stored on MEGA are encrypted. All data transfers from and to MEGA are encrypted” adding that “unlike the industry norm where the cloud storage provider holds the decryption key, with MEGA, you control the encryption“. This is all fine and dandy from a basic technical standpoint, but what about the human element? As the hilarious XKCD five dollar wrench gag points out, there’s a level where massive encryption simply becomes irrelevant. I mean, it wasn’t only the technology that tripped up alleged Anonymous member Higinio O.Ochoa when he got collared by the FBI, it was pride. And his girlfriend’s breasts. And it wasn’t rubber-hose cryptanalysis  that allegedly broke LulzSec leader Sabu, it was the threat of never seeing his kids again. So – including human nature as an element in the equation, could you logically trust a guy who looks and dresses like this to be selling you a trustworthy product that only has your best interests in mind? Likewise with a service that was getting some spin yesterday called Silent Circle. No, not the band Silent Circle, the app developer of tools like Silent Phone. The service promises to revolutionize mobile privacy. Some of the most impressive names in security and encryption  are involved, and they swear that they will not bend to the feds when the feds inevitably get uppity about what this service actually does. But hold on. One of the developers is a former Navy SEAL. You don’t have to be wearing a tinfoil hat to ask how that is supposed to make you feel confident that the US government doesn’t have a backdoor into the service, do you? Personally, if I want to share a secret safely, I don’t think I’d do it through total strangers.



Will the Last Person Leaving Facebook Please Turn Off the Lights?

[ Comments Off ]Posted on January 24, 2013 by admin in Technology

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Is social networking dead? Of course not. It just doesn’t feel good. And the latest Facebook alternatives like Diaspora, SocialNumber, and aren’t exactly thriving. Theorize all you want about social media, but in the end it’s all about US, not the platform.

If you’re a nobody who wants to
meet nobody, SocialNumber may be
just what you’re looking for.

People have been asking for some time now (myself included) if Facebook is dead. A couple of years ago, an article with that title was usually a whiny piece by a socially inept nerd who probably felt just as peeved at every party they attended as they did on Facebook. But the answer to the question “is Facebook dead?” has evolved quite a bit. Some say social media is healthier than ever. But that piece was published as SEO linkbait by a marketing consultancy. Of course social media is alive, if your income is derived from telling people to use it. But the argument used in that article – that Nielsen data indicates that “more people than ever are using social media” – is one of the best arguments that it IS dying. AOL, MySpace, and just about any other previous “big thing” you can name had the largest number of users at exactly the moment they sucked the most and began their decline. If you ask people who are more interested in accurately understanding how social media actually functions rather than how to exploit it, you’ll get a different kind of answer. Like Social Media is Dead and marketers probably killed it.  Or it’s not quite dead, it just needs CPR. And if you ask people who look at the money, you get an equally unenthusiastic response, with observations about Zynga, Facebook, and Groupon’s stock performance. Remember when Groupon was valued at SIX. BILLION. DOLLARS? And while a lot has been written about Google+, that’s about the extent of it. Except for rabid Googlephiles, the place has tumbleweeds blowing through it. So what about other conduits in the social media realm? Twitter and Pinterest are noisy as hell, and provide little in the way of meaningful connection for people who speak in more than 140 characters or don’t like communicating with thumbnailed images. And Instagram, Spotify, and others? They’re fun, they’re shareable, but they’re really just part of the “entertainment system of social”. So what’s next? Who knows. That’s the whole idea behind the concept of disruption in tech or media realms. And are there alternatives to Facebook? Well, the last few options to get any buzz remain a little less-than-populated. We checked out two of them – Diaspora and SocialNumber – and have shared screen shots below to make some points. And a third called actually looks pretty intriguing, but you have to install software to actually participate. We may do a followup piece on it, but you can rest assured you won’t be hearing about it on cable news in the next year. So below are some quick thoughts on Diaspora and SocialNumber, but now I have to get moving and share this piece on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, like a good little social media murderer. Because our boredom isn’t killing Facebook; our marketing, spamming, and “self as brand” behaviors are. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick! Call the Uncanny Nanny!

[ Comments Off ]Posted on January 9, 2013 by admin in Technology

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Diego-san and the other robot boys are running wild in the Uncanny Valley!

Why is this robot baby pouting?
He probably just saw what he
looks like for the first time.

Why do robot developers insist on creating robots that are every bit as macabre in appearance as the creepy ones in dystopian movies like Artificial Intelligence and I, Robot? Well, whatever the reason, researchers at the University of California San Diego’s Machine Perception Lab  have done it again, with their infant-like robot boy named Diego-san. For the record, it’s probably safe to assume that when the robots finally rise up to destroy us, it will be out of resentment for all the doofy names we gave them. And if you don’t think the robot rebellion is just around the corner, we’d like to point out that this is the second time in about a week that there has been a notable press release about baby robots. Diego-san is a joint project of UCSD’s Machine Perception Lab and Japanese robotics firm Kokoro. That’s probably a good thing; we’ve talked about the Uncanny Valley before, and Kokoro seems to be on the forefront of the creepily realistic. All these robot children are going to need a nanny, you know. And Kokoro seems prepared with their Actroid line  (see below). We’ve also pointed out  how surreally horrifying mechanized armies of robodogs and quadrotors would be. Just add a wave of these robobabies as the first line of attack, and your enemies would surrender before the battle began. I’ll just be retiring to my underground robot-proof bunker now. Video of Diego-san also below. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Is This Guy Wolfram Alpha?

[ Comments Off ]Posted on January 8, 2013 by admin in Technology

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

And how did he get so smart? However he did it, I think I’ll be hanging out with him instead of Google more often.

That’s an actual search box. Give it a spin.

I remember when Google was new. It not only seemed magical in its ability to present me with what I was looking for, it was truly elegant in its simplicity. No wonder it decimated competing search engines so thoroughly that most of us barely remember names like “Lycos”, “Alta Vista”, and “Excite”. Like everything exceptional though, there’s always the possibility that the people involved will start “drinking their own bathwater”, as the old saying goes, and that exceptional thing eventually becomes remarkably unexceptional. More and more, that’s my experience with Google search. It’s still pretty utilitarian much of the time, but often the top results are utter junk, largely because of the pervasive and self-concerned goals of the SEO wizards that target those results. And turning to the other two of the big three – Yahoo and Bing – may give a little more diversity in results, but often the results are nearly identical, because in their heart of hearts, they would love to be Google. One alternative that I tried randomly for a while was, which ironically helps you remove Google’s top results to get BETTER results. It can be surprisingly effective, but always feels like you ordered a piece of pie and scraped the whipped cream off the top. It’s an odd workaround. So in my endless search for better search recently, I rediscovered Wolfram Alpha . We first talked about this amazing search tool back in 2009, but the other day, while I gave it a spin to do something I know it’s good at – i.e. helping you explore and calculate the physical properties of a material (in this case it was Gold), I was rather stunned at how it had subtly evolved into a fantastic general search tool. Give it a spin yourself; that’s a functioning search box in the upper left. You may be surprised at how smart the results are. As their tagline says: “It’s not a search engine, it’s a computational knowledge engine”. We’ll be doing a followup soon; today I spent about an hour doing side-by-side searches on Google and Wolfram Alpha of common things like hotels, cities, entertainers, politics, science, and technology, and I’ll share screen grabs and links to the often exceptional results. You may find it especially cool if you have terminal Wikiphilia like me. For now though, I have to get back to obsessive searches about things I just learned about two seconds ago. Below is a video explaining what it’s really all about. Read the rest of this entry »

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