Tuesday, June 19

Pushing (and pulling) the interface

A bespectacled, slightly overweight man stands in front of a massive flat screen. With a few ‘pull apart’ motions of his fingertips, he zooms from the continental US into downtown Boston, moving from satellite imagery to a detailed roadmap in a few seconds. He flicks into a photo application, flicking thumbnails around and drawing a selection with his index finger before copying and pasting it. With a throwing motion, he sends a couple shots over to a colleague working on another area of the board. It’s Minority Report, come to life (video).

The unlikely hero is Jefferson Han, a previously unknown researcher at Cornell/NYU before making a presentation on his multi-touch interface at a tech conference last year. Since then, he’s been featured in Wired, sold units to the CIA, and helped Apple implement some touch behaviours into the iPhone.

And while the CIA might find spying faster with Hans interface, many people have responded that it looks fun. Alternate interfaces have abounded in the last few years.

Locally HitLab (Human Interface Technology) New Zealand have been hard at work pushing alternate reality interfaces. Mixing the real world with the virtual, they're an attempt to provide a natural way to work with objects, while overlaying CG elements or feedback. In principle this is fantastic - urban developers move and rotate virtual skyscrapers the same way they'd normally use wooden or plastic blocks - only the work environment now allows them to scale, create roads, and view the whole scheme in the context of a geomapped overlay. In practice the interface is a little glitchy and slow - 3d models stutter around the stage or the interface hesitates when manipulating objects (is that a move or a scale?).

Just yesterday New Zealander Julian Oliver posted about an experimental AR interface he and Simone Jones had created at the Interactivos conference at Media Lab Madrid. "The idea was simple, augment a solid cube with 6 little rooms such that the cube becomes a tangible interface for navigating through an architecture: a mind-game - 'How are the rooms connected?'" The result is a tiny Escheresque cube that seems filled with possibilities. One idea to extend the concept is to develop a mini-game/interactive where the user would guide a tiny avatar through a world by flipping a series of cubes to expose exit points.

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