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.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Innovative Interaction Concepts - part 1: Energy Exchange

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

The first presentation was given by Henna Ahonen and Glen Forde. Their idea was built around the concept of doing something that is interesting and fun (or funteresting, as they liked to call it, and because it's such a nice word, I will too) and storing the energy spent for the benefit of someone else. Their more concrete example of this concept, sharemotion, involved citybikes - bicycles that anyone in the city can pick up and use - and bicycle stations (where users return the bikes). The user gains the immediate benefit of being able to move around the city, and while he's doing that, the bike produces energy. Once the bike is returned to the station, the energy is stored so that the station can produce some small gift for the next user.

The user can also see what kind of gift will be produced for the next user, so he can feel good about not just having done something funteresting but also for giving someone else a pleasant surprise. And for that someone else, well, allow me to sidetrack to a tv series quote: "Harry, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee." Seeing how positive take on life agent Cooper has just by giving these presents to himself, it cannot be bad for a person to receive small surprises out of the blue.

The concept is very thought-provoking. Everyone talks about sharing and helping others as good things to do, but real world applications almost never do this concretely. When designing things, we always focus on the user and his goals. The reward systems in games are just like this as well: you do something, you gain the benefits. Henna and Glen's project raises a very solid point: doing the funteresting thing is indeed a benefit in itself, and becomes just more rewarding when someone else's day might improve as a result. It's not like we haven't known this, but have we really thought about this? I can admit that I haven't. So allow me to try:

The immediate thought when taking the game design viewpoint, is that the funteresting thing could be a game that requires the player to produce some energy with physical activity. Or, taken to a more abstract level, the produced benefit could be something else than actual energy, as long as it's something that can make another person happier. The key idea of this point of view is that the game is the attraction, the fun, that the user wants to do. For example, the above example concept could include a pervasive game that involves moving around the city with the bikes (perhaps the game terminal is integrated to the bike's display).

Of course, the general idea can be applied to game design as well. Maybe not in single player games (although, with today's Xbox Live, PlayStation Network etc this is also possible), but in online games the concept of "I have fun playing, and someone else is positively surprised thanks to it" is definitely applicable. Of course, in order to keep faithful to the idea of producing positive emotions, the present cannot be too significant in-game - this would lead to the concept becoming just another type of economy. So, definitely, it should be mostly symbolic and have some personality (most likely decorative items or similar).

Another short example: in an online role-playing game there would be quests that are designed to be especially funteresting to go through (so people would undertake them because the quest itself looks attractive, not its reward). Now, this isn't advertised to the player beforehand, but once the quest is completed he can give a present to a friend. The receiver on the other hand would feel good because someone cared about her (yeahyeah, using classic man-giving-gift-to-woman scenario here, sue me) enough to spend time to get that present.

Now someone might point out that you can already give presents in social medias and online games, and of course real life. But in real life, I definitely think there is a huge emotional difference between receiving a store-bought item, and between receiving something the giver made himself.

I'm hardly scraping the tip of the iceberg on this subject, and there are far more creative people around than me I'm sure (for example, the people who created this project), so I think Henna and Glen are really on to something here. At least these kinds of high level concepts could provide some food for thought when thinking about the future concepts within the II City project.

Prelude to 6 Posts on Innovative Interaction Concepts

As the title suggests, I have quite a bit of stuff to post. Short explanation follows, complete with a song reference (left as an exercise for the reader to figure out, it's not very hard).

Today is a day after yesterday, and yesterday did go really well. Except the part where I had to wake up at 4 am to get to the train station in time. So, we headed to University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, to hold a project meeting for II City. In addition to having a fruitful and entertaining project meeting, we had been invited to listen and comment the final presentations of a course experiment on user interaction. What the students had to on this course was to come up with new and experimental concepts for user interaction. They were allowed to ignore technological constraints (but some of them did consider how their concept could be implemented). Seeing the amazing results, I can imagine that the task certainly wasn't easy.

So, I'm going to write a bit about what I heard yesterday, giving each project its own blog post. Partly because putting everything in one post would result in a long post which no one would read, and partly because it's easier to comment things if the topics are separate. I will discuss these concepts from the viewpoint of game design - how to apply game-like elements to these concepts or how these ideas could inspire game design.

I'll try to post stuff as fast as I can, so that everything is up by the end of next week.

(For those who were there giving the presentations and are now reading this, I'd like to also hear your take on applying your ideas to game design, if you are at all interested in such a topic.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Look at the Long Road Ahead

It's best to start out with a plan. For readers this post pretty much tells you what kind of content you can expect from this blog in the future, and for myself it's a way to focus my thoughts into coherent form. If all goes according to plan, my doctor's thesis is ready in spring of 2014. The plan could be divided into five different types of activities: theory, analysis, prototypes, publishing and teaching.

Theory consists of the all-important questions I'm going to ask and answer. I will start out with asking the question "why people play games" and a somewhat similar question "why are games considered fun". The initial goal is to find out what attracts people to play games, and what keeps them motivated while playing a game. I'm expecting this to involve a lot of reading, so readers of this blog can expect my thoughts on quite a lot of books and what they have given to my research. Of course, in addition to understanding games, further reading on usability will be required as well. But games come first at the moment as I'm quite a bit ahead in my reading about usability and user interfaces.

Analysis means I'll be playing a lot experimental games and trying out experimental user interfaces (if able, or at least read about or watch demos of them). The first part kind of puts me on unknown territory, as my personal taste in games reeks of tradition. It should be interesting to see how this research shapes my personal view into playing games, and I will definitely share my thoughts on experimental games as I encounter them. I will start out by checking out games where audio is in an important role (such as Rez), because audio in general is very relevant to the project we are currently working on.

Prototypes include the concrete work we are doing here at the university, currently for the II City project. I don't know how many prototypes I have time to work on during the following four years, but I'm expecting the number to be around two projects each year, and possibly smaller participation in several more. My current work is related to audio generation but I'm not sure how much information I'm allowed to share at this moment, so I'll be sure to check and share what I can later on. Since we are academics, there will be published papers about each project, so at least at the end of each project I can discuss how the results affect my research.

Publications are a necessity in the academic world. I'm expected to start out slow, authoring probably just one paper and participating in a couple more in the first year, but later on there should be several publications each year. Some of the papers will discuss our prototypes after their completion and evaluation, whereas in some later papers I will start laying down the theoretical basis for my doctor's thesis. Once there are publications out, I will most likely analyze them further in this blog, and discuss their relevance to the grand plan.

Teaching is another thing that one cannot avoid when on an academic career. I'm actually looking forward to it, because much like this blog, it will help to focus my own thoughts if I have to explain new ideas to other people. Also, one side topic in what we are doing is to research how games can be used to improve education. We already have one course planned, and I'll be sure to report of my experiences with it once I've compiled the course material and when the course is being taught.

That's how I see the road ahead. It does look a bit long but hey, at least I know what I'll be doing for the next four years. And since it involves games, it has to be simply awesome.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Words of Introduction

So, I graduated to M.Sc yesterday from the University of Oulu, Finland. It took me a few years longer than I had hoped, but the timing ultimately got me to where I am now. My studies were rather technically oriented, somewhat heavy on math, signal processing and digital architecture, so I find it rather curious that I ended up doing my master's thesis on usability and user interfaces. Of course, my next step is to start post-graduate studies, on usability.

Game design on the other hand has been one of my driving interests since about fourth grade when I did my first attempt at making a role-playing game rule system, which was sadly (or maybe fortunately?) never finished. Of course, back when I applied for university, game design education was non-existent, so I just thought that I might as well pick up programming. So I did. Now, the good part: with my post-graduate studies, I'm suddenly in a position where I can put to use my technical knowledge, my game design practice and my usability studies.

We haven't decided yet on the exact topic of my doctor's thesis. My research field is designing user experience for interactive spaces*. The title of the blog comes from the following hypothesis: game design and games in general are far better at attracting users to new experiences than traditional applications, so in order to improve the total user experience, games and game-like elements need to be included in user experience design. The research will include games that experiment on new types of user interaction, as well as user interaction with game-like properties.

And that's what it's all about.

* Interactive spaces is a term used in our research group. It falls into the same category with ubiquitous computing and intelligent spaces, but with the term we wanted to emphasize user interaction. The whole point of an interactive space is that people, the users, engage in interaction with the space, and with each other inside the space.