Posts tagged ‘design’

Trust me!

October 22nd, 2003

I’m on the boat from Helsinki to Stockholm, eating breakfast. Just returned from a weekend in Helsinki where I, among other things, attended the Aula Exposure book release brunch. The book, which I wrote a piece for, has come out both interesting and beautiful. Shoutouts to Alex, Jyri, Marko and the book designers for such great work!

I spent last night in the cheapest possible cabin with a drunk trucker from Russia and two gays from France, also drunk. Scary — the minute these strangers entered the cabin, I knew I would sort of have to watch out for them all night. I tried being rational and just shut my eyes and sleep, but my gut feeling was constantly saying “You don’t trust these guys”. And so it happened that my relentless thoughts once more returned to the subject of trust and computers.


Kids playing
Kids lost in car game on the boat

To me, it’s obvious that one of the trickiest issues in interface design today is an issue of trust. The average user suffers from lack of trust in computers and the softwares running on them — and this, in a sense, keeps us from designing smarter programs and interfaces.
By “smarter” I mean programs that can drastically reduce human workload by conducting some kind of behind-the-scenes reasoning — I’m talking about ways of improving the way the computers work with us rather than the way we work with computers (but clearly the former imposes radical changes to the latter).

Of course, this widespread lack of trust has many reasons. A big one is that computers still are dumb and buggy. Another one would be that we’ve seen so many “smart” UIs and agents who turned out to be stupid and annoying. Remember the “smart menus” from Windows ME? You were desperately fumbling after the disable button after having experienced this numskulled something constantly deciding for you which menu items were important and which were not.

Yet, we are inevitably moving into a future where we will be forced to put a lot of trust in computers in order to get by. We are seeing evidence of this already today.
For instance, I trust my mail client to take care of junk mail for me. I have just a vague concept of how it’s doing it — probably it’s by using a combination of boolean logic and neural nets — but I’ve learned to trust it nevertheless.
In essence, what I trust is something — call it an agent or entity — capable of some kind of reasoning. Yes, I know that real people programmed it’s behavior at some point, and that it’s actually them I trust and that it’s actually them I ought to blame if something goes wrong.

But, in everyday life that’s not what happens — in everyday life you will blame the damn program when it filters out the wrong mail.
I mean, imagine calling up your secretary’s mom and complain just because your secretary happens to throw important stuff in the bin! And even if you do complain, that won’t get rid of your secretary.
Besides, it probably turns out the programmers stole the AI code from some obscure open source project anyway. And the guy who originally wrote that code died.

Silicon Slaves

I have, and millions of Hotmail users have, without even being fully conscious about the implications, engaged ourselves in a trust relation with a computer program, at least on the level of our everyday life.
In fact, the moment we make the computer do work of this kind for us — reasoning if you will — we simply have to trust it, or at least relate to it as if we trusted it.
Annoyingly enough, since it’s just a computer, we can’t blame it when it does wrong, and this gives rise to a lot of frustration. Actually it makes people furious.
On the one hand we have this entity which happily overtakes hours of our work without a complaint, on the other hand this work is done exclusively on the premise that we’re not permitted to complain if things go wrong. And we won’t get an excuse, nor a promise that the same thing won’t happen again. Actually we can be quite sure it will.

And yet, we humans seem to be able to establish a sort of pseudo trust in all kinds of devices and processes – and the need for an ability like this seems to grow by the day. Just think about everything from games to search engines to smart book recommendations to the segway to electronic pets (for your kids) to modern jetfighters to autonomous trains. Everywhere things are starting to use all kinds of different models for autonomous reasoning, and we just have to sort of go with the flow and trust these devices, even though we don’t know how they think and even though we can’t expect the devices themselves to explain this to us.

Where will this take us? I’d still say someplace good. I think this development is necessary, inevitable and that it eventually will bring harmony, possibly virtuosity or even a divine feeling of greater symbiosis, to computer use.
But we have a long way to go, and before we get there — much much more frustration.

Interview for Berliner Gazette

March 16th, 2003

This an english translation of an interview I did for Berlin based e-zine Berliner Gazette (only available through e-mail).

How did you end up in Berlin and what are you doing here?

The main reason why I decided to go to Berlin was because I was promised a record deal at Sonar Kollektiv when I was here in summer 2000. Since then, I knew I would move here as soon as I had finished my studies in Stockholm.

After I came here in the beginning of 2001, I worked at gate5 as an interaction designer for a year.
I soon realized that it wasn’t realistic to produce an album while working full time, so I decided to save up and go for the on-the-road option instead. During 2002 I travelled around in Europe for 9 months and when I came back (in November last year) I had about 90% of the album done. I’m really happy now that I took my time and did something different. In our society it’s easy to get absorbed by comfort — and that leads boredom and lack of inspiration. Basically I tried to artificially break out of that (if only for a year), by putting myself in strange — sometimes awkward — places and situations. I still remember sleeping on the street in Milan, Powerbook close to my chest…

Aside from making music I’ve been promoting the Indyfund, our “project funding community”. Basically we are a bunch of people (about 170 now) supporting each others projects.

As I write this, the album (entitled “Soulhack”) will be mastered in a week. When it’s done, I will go back to Stockholm and write a paper in the philosophy/computer science field.
I will return to Berlin this summer when the album is released, and then I will probably go on tour over summer.

On the Forssfolio you mention that you are interested in philosophy — how does it come into play in your projects?

Studying philosophy is a luxury. It makes you to think hard about interesting questions/problems which are avoided or forgotten in everyday life.

The idea of Indyfund formed during discussions we had when I was studying. I do not think the idea would have come to life otherwise, because we wouldn’t have had a possibility to think so deeply about organizational forms/social problems as we had then.

Philosophy definitely plays a part — but In the end I think realizing projects is about 10% inspiration/philosophy and 90% down-to-earth work.
I’m looking forward to do research on more computer science oriented philosophy. I really hope to be able to create an interesting overlap.
Probably that means my future work will be more influenced/tied to philosophy.

How/when/why did you start Indyfund?

As I mentioned above, there was an interesting situation back in 2000 with many creative, young and idealistic people in one place. I merely collected good ideas and arranged them/us.
The reason we started thinking about organizing ourselves in the first place, was because we were annoyed by the difficulties involved in running independent projects. We quickly identified that the most important external factors in succeeding with such a project was good context/community and adequate funding/resources.

It’s a sign of our time that people avoid becoming part of organizations. This applied to us as well — so we found it very important to not create yet another “underground” organization with vague goals, regular meetings, traditional board etc. Instead we wanted:

  • An organization as non-obtrusive and discreet as possible — Indyfund doesn’t have a logo, and we avoid talking excessively in public about it.
  • A platform that would augment people’s social networks
  • To fund projects in a non-beurocratically way. Today we fund projects in real time using direct democratic methods (more on this here).
  • To enable people to work with projects more efficiently
  • The framework/organisational form to be clearly set and formulated from the start (so that we wouldn’t have to deal with endless discussions on “how to develop/organize ourselves” etc.)
  • An international network with “sub-communities” forming sporadically.
  • Minimal administration. Indyfund is entirely web based and is administered by a handful of people (and they spend only a few hours time a month).

Luckily enough we were a couple of people who were already developing web applications, so we decided to get together and create the web platform. In early 2001 we got funding from Future Culture Foundation in Sweden and then work started for real. We put together a project group, including two skilled programmers. I did the site concept/design.
Indyfund V1 was launched 31st of March 2001.
The 2nd generation of the site was launched here in Berlin the 2nd of February 2002.

Where is Indyfund drifting to nowadays?

There are many possible ways for Indyfund to go from now.
First and foremost, I’m happy that the project is still up and running and that it looks like it can continue running without major efforts. We have funded about a dozen projects in 2002, and there are more being funded right now.

It’s really important to emphasize that Indyfund is really about people and projects — not the fund or the organization itself. I’m happy for each project we can finance in “our way”, and I know the members are too.

There are of course some inherit problems in the organization today – e.g. due to the fact that you have to be “invited” in order to become a member, our member base have grew slower than we have expected (we will try to address this issue by simplifying invitation procedures…). There are also issues connected with paying the membership fee (EUR4/month, 95% of which are used for projects), because currently it can only be done over subscription based credit card payment internationally (other options involves much administration, but we can take cash if there are no other possibilities).

There are also other, more radical, plans:

  • A small group of members might be trying to pitch for EUR100000 from Future Culture Foundation in 2003. If we get the money it would definitely mean a big boost for the whole project. Basically we would split the money so that as much as possible would be used directly for projects and the rest for development/administration.
  • There are organizations/people who are interested in buying the platform as-is, to be able to run their own Indyfunds. Due to the circumstances, I can’t give more details on this at the moment.
  • We have been thinking ourselves about creating different instances for different needs/purposes/subgroups. It’s definitely an interesting possibility, and it’s quite doable. There could also be a possibility for the different instances to communicate with each other in a peer-to-peer fashion…
  • We also have plans for a major site update, with the addition of more advanced communication features.

It’s 2005, The Apple BlackBox is here!

February 13th, 2003

This is a fictional review of a product that does not yet exist. It contains a lot of whishes and guesswork…
Will it happen? If you know more than me, please do comment!

Apple has done it again. The new Apple BlackBox is just amazing. Finally they have released what we have all have been longing for — the essentials of a Powerbook stripped down to a sleek black box that fits in your palm. Not only have they realised our wildest dreams — they have realised them in a rather convincing way!

Slick Black

The Apple BlackBox is nothing more than a black box equipped with wireless Ethernet, wireless Firewire, Bluetooth, 3G, GSM, gigabit Ethernet, Firewire, USB, DVI-out and a charger port. It comes standard with an internal 150GB hard drive, 1.5GB RAM and a 2.5GHz G5 processor.
It runs Approx. 10 hours on a battery load, but it can run up to 30 hours depending on usage.

The BlackBox comes by default in slick black, but you can buy different skins from the Apple Store. Actually its sophisticated design reminds me of the good old days of NEXT.
There is also a standard carrying pocket announced which will even come in jeans fabric!
It’s running a full Mac OS X 2.1 and Apple has bundled some specially developed software with it.

“Ok, nice”, you say, “but how can I use this wonderful little thing at all? It only has a power button!”. Admitting that this is indeed a very controversial product that definitely represents a paradigm shift, I can still say my “beginners” user experience has been great so far.

The secret is in the software, the most important one dubbed iControl, which is really not much more than a driver layer for OS X that you will hardly notice. It is based upon a standard protocol for inter-device communication. Basically you can set up hardware/software to receive certain remote commands, give certain feedback and report errors.

Mucho Mobile

Maybe the simplest way of interfacing with the BlackBox is using a standard Apple Bluetooth keyboard, Bluetooth mouse and Cinema Display.
What’s very nice about this is that it forces you not to kill your back. With my Powerbook I could sit for hours in totally unsound positions!
This setup, even though perfect for office needs, doesn’t allow you to work on the field. For this Apple offers a number of possibilities.
Maybe the easiest way is to buy the Apple Mobility package, which consists of a nice foldable Bluetooth keyboard/mouse-pad and a 5″ (yes, 5!) hi-res screen. There is a carrying pocket for the keyboard/mouse/screen, which is almost in size to the one for the BlackBox, so you can easily pack it with you on a trip. The screen can also be docked on the top of the BlackBox, which is convenient.

There is a touch/pen version of the screen, which I haven’t been able to test myself, although sources reports it as being very powerful for webpad/PDA-style applications.
There is also a 12″ portable screen that can be bought separately.
This is however only one way of interfacing with the BlackBox — there are many other, more exotic ways of doing it.

A Swedish company has announced its support for the BlackBox in its smart Bluetooth keyboard. Basically it consists of two pieces of fabric you put around your hands that magically learn how you type (using neural net technologies). Sources say performance is almost up to par with standard keyboards.
Also a number of manufacturers make glasses and heads-up displays that work with the BlackBox. I have tried some and I have to say it is not all that bad as it was a couple of years back. I think it will be a more common sight in offices within a few years. There is even one manufacturer that makes Bluetooth dataglowes, with a neat piece of software that projects a small 3D-view of your hands in the bottom right of your screen. Now if only that could be combined with typing somehow — then I could finally go Cyperspace®!

iControl introduced

As an addition to the digital lifestyle product line, Apple has released a suit of small devices for basic needs called iControls.

There is a remote control for film/music/radio playback with which you can even browse titles on a mini screen.

There is a remote not unlike the ones bundled with video projectors featuring a small button cursor control, and a few assignable buttons. There are USB earphones with a small remote.
There is a Bluetooth headset which can voice-control iPhone (a simple phone-over-IP and GSM app by Apple) which didn’t really work properly for me, but I think it can be because I’m in Europe using American hardware/software. Nifty enough the BlackBox has built in vibration and even hifi-ring tones.
Can’t wait for the Telcos to offer true worldwide flat rate contracts though…

iControl…Everything

What’s nice about the iControls is that you can really configure them in any way you want, so you can use all of them for everything from presentations to games.
There are also a number of iControl-compatible phones and PDAs that do essentially the same thing. Basically when you hook up e.g. a phone, you get a list of controllable apps and their commands on your phone’s screen — the Apple Mail-app even let’s you view and send mail. One noteworthy thing is that the new Nokia 9510 phone has a DVI-in, which mean it can be used as a real screen for the BlackBox as well. Other PDA- and phone-manufacturers are following this initiative.
Also a number of manufacturers have announced their own iControl-devices ranging from “minimini” keyboards and SMS-style typing pads (with OS X-native T9-software) to portable Bluetooth speakers that display track titles and even “blinkenlights” that you can control from your BlackBox.
What’s nice about this standard is that many of the large companies are also developing other kinds of iControl-hosts, that will — thanks to the standard — be usable with iControls from Apple.

USB, Bluetooth, and firewire handles all sound input/output flawlessly. Recording can be done with e.g. a Bluetooth microphone. Some have complained to Apple for removing the analogue sound jacks for good, but I personally think it’s a step in the right direction to move DACs out of the computers and into speakers and the like. The sound quality improves, devices gets smaller and best of all — audio stays digital all the way.
In any case, the BlackBox plays not only MP3s and OGGs but also MP4s and DVDs (over e.g. the wireless firewire DVD-player from Apple) perfectly, and I think it makes the ever-so-nice iPod more or less obsolete (unless you need a very small device).


BlackBox monolith ad
From the Monolith ad. ® 2005 Apple Computer

Size matters

Actually, that is an important point made by Apple: suddenly this box makes a lot of other devices obsolete — but it spawns a multitude of new ones as well.
The only real downside is it’s size — and we all know size matters.
In this field competition is real hard. I, for one, wouldn’t mind carrying my BlackBox everyday, everywhere — but many of my friends still thinks it is nicer/cooler to carry phones the size of a thumb. It’s just that aside from the phone they need to carry their PDA, their iPod and their portable computer with them aswell..plus chargers for these devices and so on. And they need to sync things (ok, I admit products like iSync make it easier, but with the BlackBox you simply don’t have to deal with it.). Not to talk about all the separate user interfaces you need to learn and re-learn all the time.

I was never a PDA-fan and I admit I couldn’t do everything with my phone but since the BlackBox I have been turned…or well…the PDA has turned into something I like. Now I don’t feel it’s returning to the interfaces of the 90s whenever I want to update my calendar or send a message to somebody. Instead I get the glory of hardware accelerated aqua.

All in all, the BlackBox is a killer product — mainly because of its versatility.
I’m using it on a daily basis already — my Powerbook, Powermac and iPod are all on eBay — and I can just recommend you to start saving up!

Pros
  • Unsurpassed versatility / usability / simplicity / design
  • Potential replacement and unification of your old devices
  • Makes way for a true mobile office, a paradigm shift
  • Battery performance, greatly enhanced due to stripping of components
Cons
  • Expensive, especially if you want all the goodies.
  • Batteries, batteries for all my little gadgets…and their chargers. Luckily, Apple offers the Charger Hub, but for 3rd party devices it’s still a mess. We need better standards for powerplugs and chargers!
  • The BlackBox is on the border of being a PDA or a Phone or a Webpad, but it’s neither fully, so some people might find it uncomfortable for some uses (even though — being a pure enthusiast — I thinks it’s more something to get used to…).
  • Can be difficult to choose optimal ways of interfacing with the device