Friday, April 30, 2010

Innovative Interaction Concepts - part 2: City Chills

This is the second post in a series describing student presentations that we were invited to see and comment during the II City project meeting.

The second presentation, by Mark Cosgrave and Ulla Mathaldi, was a more concrete interaction concept. Their idea combined an interesting user interface and an interesting way for finding new places in the city. They also introduced an interesting way of attracting a user to the screen by having the screen acknowledge the user's physical presence. The actual idea is built around fuzzy usability, where the user is not presented with all the options, but kind of discovers them one at a time in an interactive way. The service in their example is a way of navigating the city using the city soundscape to find places that are pleasing to the user.

I think Mark and Ulla's concept has three different things going on, all of them interesting on their own right. So let's do the engineering thing and pick this project apart (forgive me my barbaric manners, I just can't resist my inner engineer). The first interesting point in the above description is how the user is attracted to the screen in the first place. If we think of this in a more abstract way, the screen is concretely showing that it notices the person's presence and identifies with the potential user. We want to be acknowledged by our peers, and I would go as far to say this goes for machines as well.

I'll sidetrack briefly to talk about I guess most people know it by now, but anyway, it's a service that tracks what music you play on your computer (or any other music player that can send information to their servers) and keeps statistics for you. The service doesn't require much from the user. You register once, and enable scrobbling. When you visit the site, it identifies a part of you - the music you listen to - and shows content that is relevant for you, like artist recommendations. It's perhaps not the best example, but I think it somehow does show how this automatic service clearly notices the user. Generally speaking, when our computers or web sites show us interesting or relevant information without specifically asking for it, we feel acknowledged.

In the coming age of interactive spaces, it will be increasingly more important to attract users to services that are relevant to their interests, because there are going to be so many services, and if people have to actually explore all the available options, they will be too intimidated to even try. The fuzzy usability idea is actually kind of related to this. It is, simply, a user interface where everything is not visible to the user at start. It inspires exploration and I think it's an interesting way of finding new services. If I have some twenty plus icons on my screen, I'm too intimidated by the sheer amount figure out what can I do with them. But if I just start from one point, and then reveal more based on what I see, it's more like "hey, I wonder what's here".

So instead of being hit in the face with the sledge hammer of twenty icons, I start to discover options by exploring, one at a time. When I find something interesting, I can immediately try it out, and maybe continue exploring the screen later. This is actually a bit like how games teach us to play them. New options are introduced gradually, so at the beginning we are taught just the basics to get started on playing. Then, when we encounter new situations, then the relevant options are revealed to us and we can immediately see how they could be useful. (sidenote: I just finished reading an interesting book by James Paul Gee about how games teach us, and I'll get back to that subject in a later post).

I think it's fairly obvious that this kind of interface concept has applications in game design as well. It has some small similarities with fog of war in strategy games, but as a concept it's much stronger. Just like fog of war, in fuzzy interaction like this the screen doesn't need to stay revealed permanently, but it can slowly fade out the oldest revealed parts. The general idea is that game concepts would revolve around the idea of revealing only parts of the screen at any given time. My first intuition would be to think of puzzle game mechanics around this concept, but I'm sure there will be lots of other possibilities when proper thought is given to the idea.

The third concept here is the idea of navigating a city based on sounds. It is in fact an interesting concept, because sound strongly affects the atmosphere. Say I want to look for some place where I can just relax for a while. I could just pick some park and hope it's not full of noisy kids. But clearly it's much better if I can explore the city as a soundscape. This also fits the theme of exploration and discovery. I just listen to sounds from some abstract presentation, and when I hear something interesting, I can ask for guidance to get there.

It would also be curious if instead of showing the place on a map, I could just get audio instructions on my mobile phone. This brings this new "I wonder where this is taking me" aspect to finding places. It would also break the usual way of moving around where we first decide where we are going and then just figure out how to get there. By following the soundscape like this, I think we would more often get to places where we didn't mean to go to, but afterwards are really glad that we went there anyway. Again, this is an idea that can be used in games, especially massive online games. The player could just ask the game to show them to a place that fulfills certain criteria and then end up in some place that they've never seen before.

It looks like Mark and Ulla's presentation turned out to be an excellent lesson in the joy of discovery. Just to remind you, this was a fifteen minute presentation by two students (although, I'm sure lots and lots of work went to actually preparing it!), and let me assure you that, once again, this post is just a fragment of all the discussion that was and most likely will be inspired by it. We also found this kind of fuzzy interface as a potential research subject for II City, so perhaps there will be more concrete work on it in the future.

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