Friday, February 10, 2012

Go Natural with Your Interface

Do you sometimes wish you could know what the next big hot thing in technology will be?  Who thought a few years ago that mobile devices would become so dominant? Yet currently, mobile devices are driving software and hardware development pretty much everywhere. Digital designer and thought leader Luke Wrobleski recently wrote a book, "Mobile First", calling for bottom up interface design - design for mobile devices and only then port to non-mobiles. Screen real estate Rules! (pun)

What's next? Some people have a way of zeroing in on these things. I had a conversation recently with Jonathan Josephson, CTO of Quantum Interface,  about Natural User Interfaces (NUIs), which he firmly believes is the way technology is going - and should go.

Jonathan is one of those entrepreneurial think-outside-the-box people who has inspiration at unexpected moments (e.g. driving the sometimes challenging Texas freeways) and rather than just saying "cool idea!" and continuing home, he patents the idea and forms a successful business venture. Hence it was with Quantum Interface's motion interface technology which the company is developing for use ... lots of places.

If you want to run (fast) in a conversation about interesting ideas, Jonathan is your guy. Within minutes of starting our first phone call we were talking about their technology enabling people to walk into the shower and use arm motions to control the water flow (on, off, hotter, colder, pressure increase, pressure decrease), to watch TV (couch potatoes rejoice - you won't have to get up and you won't need all those annoying remotes either), adjust the lighting (come home late at night and can't find the light switch? no problem. Let there be light, says your body, and there it will be just the way you want it).

And then there is assistive technology -

Wait a minute (we'll come back to that last thought) -  What exactly is a NUI?

(try looking it up online. you will get a multitude of unhelpful answers)

Jonathan explains: a Natural User Interface is a user interface that is natural to use. Ok, agreed, but what does "natural" mean (because I just had to ask)? I was mentally screaming ahead with all the examples of how we are so adept at adapting that sometimes it is hard to tell what is natural and what is acquired. As Jonathan and I spoke about body movements (motions) that are natural to us as humans, he agreed with my comment about how unnatural a smart phone is. I felt vindicated: Last fall I wrote a post here about my frustration with (and ultimate defeat by) an Android phone when I first tried to use it. But, as with many items we interact with daily, after you have learned to manipulate a smart phone, it may feel natural. Until, that is, you bruise your fingers from over enthusiastic tapping on it. I mean really - were the ends of our fingers designed to use as mini-sledgehammers day in and day out?

We can adapt. We have opposable thumbs and all that. Why do we need NUIs?  next time...


  1. Great post. I'm interested to see how your ideas compare with Bill Buxton's of MSR...

    1. Right off the bat, I see areas of overlap in Bill Buxton's concerns with implementing multi-modality and QI's focus on devices with variable controls. Both are simultaneously concerned with reducing complexity for the user w/o sacrificing the inherent complexity of the behaviors.

  2. Very interesting. You said you would get back to technology for people with disabilities. Would like to hear Jonathan's ideas for applications using motion interfaces.

    Abigale Barnabas