Étude #2

On the NoPhone.


(351 words)

The hallmark of great user experience is not a presence, but an absence—of anxiety. Anxiety is a mark of sub-optimal micro-interactions; with things, with people, with environments. How could I have done it better?

An enlightened mind faces a different anxiety, a mark of sub-optimal choice of micro-interactions; with things, with people, with environments. What could I have done instead?

Is it okay to use my information-device when I could be talking to a fellow complex sentient? Is it okay to talk to a fellow sentient when the occasion is blessed with great weather and that rare breeze, the fruits of a complex space-ball of mass-energy hurtling through space? Is it okay to be enjoying the sensuous fruits of said space ball when my complex information device, by my instruction, is trying to get my attention with something that could be urgent?

Our weapon against anxiety is irony. Irony defuses our self-expectations, shorts the circuits that process this complexity. Turns a complex sentient into a stereotype, a complex space-ball into a nostalgic image, a complex information device into mere moulded plastic. A NoPerson, a NoEarth, a NoPhone. A NoThing cannot feel envy, or engender jealousy.

But juxtaposed faces cannot be highlighted only on one side. As irony slaps the cheek of our sub-optimal choices, we unwittingly turn the other cheek, raising our unexamined envy for sacrifice.

Our weapon against irony is empathy. Where irony seeks to compress and summarise, empathy seeks to experience and individualise. Envy is arrested, stopped dead in its tracks by complexity, by the full magnitude of unanxious engagement with information-devices, with sentients, with space-balls.

Let us cling to our NoPhones, NoPersons, and NoEarths for those moments when the cross of empathy wears us thin. And when our souls, recharged from the great inexhaustible source of life, are filled again with the fire of vocation, let us leave our NoThings to bear our enlightened anxieties, the NoPerson interacting anxiously with the NoPhone to gather more information on the NoEarth, and be free. To engage fully in our interactions, and to let others be engaged fully in theirs.

Étude #1

An attempt at an étude—short but dense writing—as introduced by Venkatesh Rao on ribbonfarm. It didn’t start off as one; it was supposed to be a short Facebook post, but after some typing, grew into this. (It ended up being posted on Facebook anyway.)

(305 words)

The “digital native” is a fallacy.

There are people who are curious about product features, people who are creative in the way they use digital tools, people who are clear about what they want and need a tool designed exactly for that, people who are insanely flexible in their workflows, people who are insanely rigid in their workflows, …

But there are no digital natives. No one speaks binary as a mother tongue. No one was born in the digital ether. No one is wired for the digital ether.

Our experience of digital information is mediated by architects, programmers, and designers, of information systems and interfaces. Even text-based command interfaces are a challenge in design: lexical and grammatical.

Our social interactions are also mediated by ritual interfaces. The greeting. The introduction. The handshake. The smalltalk dance. The shared-with-public announcement. The friends-only personal celebration. Calling a friend’s name to ping their information stream. Social networks are not a digital thing, but we now have digital interfaces for them.

There are complex interfaces, and there are simple interfaces. There are fixed interfaces, and there are contextual interfaces. There are strict interfaces, and forgiving interfaces. Each unfamiliar interface has to be learnt anew, lest we commit ritual faux pas and are reprimanded to our inter-faces. The socially able are proficient at reading social interfaces. The digitally able are proficient at reading digital interfaces. There is nothing “native” about it; our grammatical skills are native, but the way we apply them to various interfaces are not.

So give the non-native a break. No one is supposed to be native at these things. It’s why we have “etiquette” courses. “Computer” courses are the same thing in different guise.

Be a gracious interface. Learn to make gracious interfaces, learn to teach gracious interfacing. Because none of us are natives at this.

Revisiting the ghost’s shell: movement maps and the gameplay tell

In a brief rant on the future of interaction design, Bret Victor talks about human capabilities. Specifically, the capabilities of human hands.

We live in a three-dimensional world. Our hands are designed for moving and rotating objects in three dimensions, for picking up objects and placing them over, under, beside, and inside each other. No creature on earth has a dexterity that compares to ours.

Bret Victor, A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design

If you’ve been following this series of posts, you know where this is headed. Aside from recent developments in VR, thus far almost all game controllers released to this date have relied on hands.

On Bret’s recommendation, I picked up John Napier’s book on hands. It is a comprehensive book comparing capabilities of different hands, particularly differences between those of humans and other primates. It’s guaranteed to change the way you look at your hands.

It also changed the way I look at controllers. Particularly, the way controllers change the way we play games. I’m not going to open up the can of keyboard-and-mouse–vs–controller-debate here, because frankly that’s just not very interesting to talk about. Here’s a more interesting question: how does your game controller change the way you play a game? Here’s another interesting question: what does this change look like? Continue reading Revisiting the ghost’s shell: movement maps and the gameplay tell

Revisiting the ghost’s shell: proprioception in gaming

[Featured image from PS4Fans.net]

Anyone who has played a local-multiplayer game (multiple players sharing one screen) knows how messy the initial conditioning is. You wiggle your controller’s thumbstick, press a few buttons, determine which of the viewports shown is your own (if split-screen first-person) or which of the on-screen characters running around is yours (if third-person). And even then, at some point in the game massive explosions happen, or you need a toilet break, and when you’re finally back with full attention you have to re-spot your character all over again.

This can get really messy with games like Assault Android Cactus. It is not uncommon to mix up another player’s character for your own, especially when there is lots of on-screen movement.

Assault Android Cactus [Comicbuzz]
Assault Android Cactus [Comicbuzz]
There are even games that exploit this difficulty of matching intention to movement—proprioception in medical parlance. The player who recognises his character first is much more likely to win in that game. Continue reading Revisiting the ghost’s shell: proprioception in gaming

Thresholds in computing: Part 10 – Beyond Thin-ITX

(Part 10 in a series of posts on small-form-factor computing)

In my previous posts on Thin-ITX, I made two complaints:

  1. There is still some cabling required in Thin-ITX, to connect the front panel ports (USB, audio) and power button to the motherboard.
  2. A Thin-ITX system can still be further shrunk, since nothing really limits it to a minimum size of 17×17cm.
  3. There are still more sources of heat than are really required for a Thin-ITX system

The first two issues have been resolved by another (unofficial) form factor: Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC). The NUCs are barebones small-form-factor systems—just add CPU, RAM, SSD, and water—with motherboards measuring 10×10cm. They carry the full range of connectivity (USB, audio, HDMI/Displayport) enjoyed by most PCs, although perhaps not the full complement.



These things are deliciously small. In fact,at  12×11×3.5cm, they are barely larger than the motherboards they house. This is an approach to cabling elimination that we’ve seen before in ITX: If you can’t bring the board closer to the sides, bring the sides closer to the board. Continue reading Thresholds in computing: Part 10 – Beyond Thin-ITX

Revisiting the ghost’s shell: Prologue

I recall, once, watching my cousin playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution. At some point in the intro cutscene, he enters an elevator, where a female non-playable character (NPC) is waiting. While they converse, my attention was pulled away by a strange observation: I could see the NPC in the mirrored walls of the elevator, but not my own reflection.

I don’t particularly care for the rationalisations of the effect—low graphics quality settings, the difficulties of the uncanny valley, whatever else the technical difficulties are. How did I come to recognise, however vaguely, that perspective as my own, and what led me to expect a reflection in the same mirrored surface?

I think some very interesting questions—and hopefully answers as well—lie at this intersection of perception, cognition, and gaming, and I’m going to try at least fortnightly posts while keeping up my output on small-form-factor computing (of which not very much is left). If you know me from somewhere, give me a poke if I haven’t been keeping up like I promised.

Thresholds in computing: Part 9 – heat dissipation and Thin-ITX

(Part 9 in a series of posts on small-form-factor computing)

I wish I had the equipment to make the kind of heatmaps that Puget Systems does in their comparison of horizontal vs vertical cooling. But I don’t, so we’ll just have to make do with overlays again.

Heat sources in a passively cooled system
Heat sources in a passively cooled system

Continue reading Thresholds in computing: Part 9 – heat dissipation and Thin-ITX

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