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Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Funnest Volume Knob in the Whole World

My job description includes "knows how to create fun software." Some days this makes me happy, other days it stresses me out. Lately it's been stressing me out. As a consequence, I've been paying a lot of attention to what's fun. Of course, that pretty much sucks the fun right out of everything, but it's been educational.

I've spent that last fifteen minutes or so trying to figure out what's so fun about my Griffin PowerMate. The PowerMate is a USB controller that looks like a volume knob torn off the front of a 70's era stereo. I got mine a couple years ago to use with iTunes, and it's been quitely amusing me ever since. The controller is generic (the driver lets you assign the various rotation and pressing combinations to pretty much anything you want), but I just use mine as a volume knob.

It's a fairly hefty block of machined aluminium, rotates smoothly with just enough drag to give it a feeling of quality, and does a serviceable job of controlling the volume. But that makes it "satisfying", which isn't exactly the same thing as "fun".

It's a little surprising at first. You don't expect to see what is obviously a volume knob sitting on a desk attached to your computer. The incongruity is definitely part of fun, but the novelty wears off. On the other hand, when somebody new sees it, they generally comment, which briefly reactivates the novely aspect.

Oh yeah, and it pulsates.

The base is a translucent rubber substance, and there are a pair of blue LEDs inside, so the knob sits on a glowing blue base. The LEDs fade on and off in a three second cycle, and get brighter the higher the volume is set.

The pulsing is suprisingly un-annoying. It turns out to be subtle enough to generally ignore, but obvious enough to notice if you're looking at it. And it's fun. I'm not quite sure why, but there's something entertaining about it. Sort of like watching a fire.

So, we've got:
  • Functional (it does what it needs to do)
  • Satisfying (it does it with style)
  • Novel (reinforced by the comments of people who haven't seen it before)
  • Hypnotic (pulsing blue glow clouds the mind)
Which, in this case, adds up to the world's funnest volume knob. I'm not entirely satisfied with the "Hypnotic" attribute, I think it's worth a little more thought, but perhaps it should wait until I've picked apart more fun computer-related experiences.


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Friday, July 15, 2005

Drawn With A Very Fine Camelhair Brush

I was pleased to find that there were (as of 1993) exactly twenty five kinds of nouns, no more, no less. Here they are, after the fashion of "Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge"[1]

{act, action, activity}{natural object}
{animal, fauna}{natural phenomenon}
{artifact}{person, human being}
{attribute, property}{plant, flora}
{body, corpus}{possession}
{cognition, knowledge}{process}
{communication}{quantity, amount}
{event, happening}{relation}
{feeling, emotion}{shape}
{food}{state, condition}
{group, collection}{substance}
{location, place}{time}

The list is from "Five Papers on WordNet"[2]. WordNet is a dictionary on steroids. Or maybe LSD. Instead of being the typical alphabetical list of definitions, it's a queriable database of word relationships organized according to psycholinguitic theories.

The paper reminded me why I bothered to get a Linguistics degree. It's no doubt out of date with regard to the number twenty-five, but that's not really the point.

The list is reminiscent of the kinds of things you get with a priori philosophical languages. The search for the perfect philisophical language (one that reflects the nature of reality directly, and can be logically manipulated to find "truth"), has taken up a lot of time and effort over the past dozen or so centuries. I suspect that the semantic web is the latest link in this chain of well-meant silliness. Umberto Eco, in his book The Search for the Perfect Language, goes into great detail on the subtle addictiveness of that sort of thing, and how the scientifically inclined mind is apt to get trapped in an obsessive investigation into Hermetic mysteries while claiming to be engaging in science. But what the heck, it got us the Dewey Decimal system. Perhaps RDF, shorn of the "Semantic Web", will amount to something similiarly flawed-but-useful.

WordNet isn't a philisophical language, though on the surface it could be mistaken for one. WordNet isn't designed to reflect the perfection of the universe, but to reflect the imperfect view of the world as seen through human eyes and interpreted through words. It uses commonsensical and scientifically well founded theories of language. It records instead of imposes, and has no pretension of perfection. I really like WordNet.

For the curious, the Celestial Empire list restricts itself to animals, which are divided as follows: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

[1] The Analytical Language of John Wilkins
Jorge Luis Borges

[2] Five papers on WordNet
Miller, George A., Christiane Fellbaum, Katherine J. Miller.


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Monday, July 11, 2005

Interface Melancholia

I'm a sucker for tangible interfaces. Tangible interfaces try to recouple the virtual and the real. An example would be outfitting a set of children's blocks with little sensors and using them, rather than a mouse or a keyboard, as an interface. It sounds kind of hokey, but in practice it can be pretty neat. I got hooked at the SIGGRAPH 98 art gallery by an installation that used a video projector to overlay words on a stream of water. You could hold out your hand and virtually "dam up" the stream, and the words would all swirl around as if you were holding them back. I finally looked up the info, you can find it here[1].

This[2] tangible interface (courtesy of my new addiction future feeder[3]) uses sticks and stones and leaves for interaction:

It evokes something, what exactly I'm not quite sure. It probably has something to do with Anselm Kiefer or maybe the ephemeral environmental art of Andy Goldsworthy. The movie of the installation isn't very clear, but I'm thinking it may be one of those things that's better in my imagination then in reality.

If you're in the Dallas area, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (please don't call it "the modern") has a couple of Anselm Kiefer pieces. I especially like the winged book:

The new MAMFW (please don't call it "the modern") has a steep admission charge, unlike the old and busted (but free) MAMFW. Somebody has got to pay for all that concrete. It is, admittedly, very nice concrete.

Looking back over, I'm definitely thinking Andy Goldsworthy and not Anselm Kiefer, but I know Kiefer fits in there someplace. I suspect there's a unifying theme to all this buried somewhere, but I'm too tired to dig it out. Just look at the nice pictures and try to feel all evoked.


[1] http://acg.media.mit.edu/projects/stream/
[2] http://www.d-srupt.com/weblog/2005/02/natural-interfaces.html
[3] http://futurefeeder.com

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Developers Squared : Part 1

At work, we've been discussing the best time to add developers to a team. I'm of the "later but not too late" school. It's been suggested that if I'm going to run around saying things like "later but not too late", I'm obliged to explain myself. I'm planning to write up a couple of blog entries on this topic, I'll stick to the basics in this one.

Fred Brooks in his legendary The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering discusses the problem of staffing and the division of work. Brooks presents his discussion as a series of graphs showing the time to complete a project versus the number of workers assigned to the project.

A "perfectly partionable task" is one where there is no communication between workers and no sequential constraints between subtasks. This is in all ways totally unlike a software project, and is presented for comparison only. The graph is log-log, so the 1/x relationship shows up as a straight line:

An unpartionable task (the usual example is bearing a child) takes the same amount of time (nine months) no matter how many workers are assigned. Software projects aren't generally quite this bad:

If a task is imperfectly partionable, costs associated with coordinating the subtasks have to be factored in. Communication costs vary, but Brooks models the worst case as rising with the square of the number of developers (if each worker has to spend a portion of their day talking to every other worker) Real-life software projects are generally of this variety, at least early on. Things can get ugly fast. The graph is again log-log, so it can be directly compared to the "perfectly partionable" case above:

That upturn there at the end means that each additional worker actually delays the project by some amount. There is hope. The longer you wait to add people, the more mature the system framework becomes, and the more partionable the the system should be. So the "later" part in "later but not too late" has something to do with having a relatively mature system framework. I'll address the "too late" part, as well as as some other contributing factors, in upcoming postings.


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Monday, July 04, 2005

Two More from CHI 2005

I'm working on technology that will go into people's homes, so I've been catching up on my reading in pervasive technologies and ubiquitous computing.

Artful Systems in the Home
Alex S. Taylor, Microsoft Research (UK), Laurel Swan, Brunel University (UK)

I was reading "Artful Systems in the Home" and found myself nodding as I read it. What the authors say makes sense. Much current research seems to be about finding uses for cool technology, instead of finding cool uses for technology, and it was refreshing to see the needs of families taken as primary when discussing technology for the home.

But the paper left me with a problem. As someone actually working on these sorts of systems, I can sympathise with the paper's aims, but it offers me very little I can use.

It's an observation I wouldn't have made if I hadn't been trying to build a system for the home, and it pains me to make it. I like the idea of thinking through consequences, of studying how to actually help people with technology instead of helping technology by forcing it onto people.

Ultimately, though, I have to build something, and the feedback of others trying to make real systems is more useful than ethnographic musings.

It was a shock to realize that I was getting more practical use out of some very silly pure-geeky-technology papers than I was out of a paper based on the sort of approach I had come to respect.

That was a bit of a downer, so here's something a little more fun. Excessive commentary would be inappropriate, just read it, it's short. And don't miss the bibliography, entry [9] pretty much says it all:

Edible Bits: Seamless Interfaces between People, Data and Food
Dan Maynes-Aminzade, Stanford University, USA


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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Five from CHI 2005

I wanted to go to CHI 2005, but things didn't work out. Second best is just reading the proceedings, but I'm too cheap to buy the proceedings. That leaves third best: reading the program online and googling the author names. You can find a good percentage of the papers that way without having to shell out major bucks. The only real downside is the inability to easily browse. You end up having to guess what might be interesting based on the titles. I decided to pick out five or so papers that had interesting or evocative or mysterious titles and see how they stacked up for:
  • Inspiration
  • Practical Advice
  • Fun
The fun part is important when you're reading outside your direct field of expertise, things get boring pretty fast if you're lost. My favorite papers have all three, but I'll settle for just one, especially if it's a real hoot. I figured anything that included a contribution from the MIT Media Lab was bound to have a couple of side-splitting hoots. I wasn't disappointed.

Dishmaker: Personal Fabrication Interface
Leonardo Bonanni, Sam Sarcia, Subodh Paudel, Ted Selker, MIT Media Laboratory, USA

Fun factor off the scale, and inspirational to boot. No totally new ideas here, but the fact that they actually went and built the thing gets them massive points. Yes, they built a machine that on-demand manufactures your plates, bowls and cups just-in-time for dinner, then recycles them for breakfast. The fact that the plates are only 6 inches across (and look amazingly like the bowls, which look pretty much exactly like the cups) may impact the practicality, but in no way detracts from the pure geeky joy of the thing. Here's what the MIT Media Lab is good for: amusing me.

The paper is here somewhere: http://web.media.mit.edu/~amerigo/, but you don't really get the full effect unless you look at the rest of the site.

Glimpse: a Novel Input Model for Multi-level Devices
Clifton Forlines, Chia Shen, Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories, USA; Bill Buxton, Buxton Design, USA

What's a Multi-level device, anyway? Well, now I know, it's a term you make up when you're trying very hard to come up with a use for pressure-sensitive touch pads/digitizing tablets. Not such a big deal in the past, when the main use was getting a better simulation of brush strokes in paint programs, but now that (evidently) every tablet PC comes with a pressure sensing surface, there's some (ehem) pressure to make use of it. The authors suggest a sort of tenative action, with a firm push to commit and a lift to undo, something like the way some digital camera shutter buttons have a "half-way-pushed" state. I'd have to try it out, it sounds a little hard to use, I know the camera shutter button thing takes some practice to get used to (I still occasionally take a picture when I'm just trying to lock the exposure). Fun factor gets a "meh," I was inspired to go try and figure out how to get the pressure data out of my tablet PC, so there's that, and I learned several things, so it was informative.


Making Space for Stories: Ambiguity in the Design of Personal Communication Systems
Paul M. Aoki, PARC (USA), Allison Woodruff, Intel Research (USA)

One of the "Best Paper" winners. I was interested enough when I thought I was going to learn about the effects of electronically mediated communication on face-saving strategies. (Think "I don't want to talk to/chat with this person, but I don't want to hurt their feelings and they don't want to think that I don't want to talk with them"), but then I found myself reading about how to apply Kerberos (kind of) to human interaction and I was hooked. Geeks do sociology. Fun (not Big Fun, but fun), inspirational, and interesting. And relatively short. It deserved the award.


Designing the Spectator Experience
Stuart Reeves, University of Nottingham (UK), Steve Benford, University of Nottingham (UK), Clare O'Malley, University of Nottingham (UK), Mike Fraser, University of Bristol (UK)

Another "Best Paper" winner. I was prepared to be bored, but was encouraged by the brevity of the thing and decided to read it. I was glad. The paper strings together activities (or, rather, performances) as diverse as Dance Dance Revolution, photo booths, and looking through a telescope. You've got your basic "see the results of actions, can't see the results of actions" axis, and your "can see the actions themselves, can't see the actions themselves" axis, and you put the two of them together and come up with something interesting and, evidently, useful. I kept on thinking of waiting in a virtual line to play online Quake deathmatches, and how half the fun was watching the people ahead in line fight it out.


Urban Probes: Encountering Our Emerging Urban Atmospheres Eric
Paulos, Intel Research (USA), Tom Jenkins, Royal College of Art (UK)

It's alt.chi (not that there's anything wrong with that), but even so, this one is a little silly. But it's too fun to resist, and for much the same reason as the Dishmaker: they actually went and built something instead of just theorizing. True, the thing they built is a trashcan that photographs and analyzes (then displays) each item of trash as it's thrown away, but that's not the point. The point is that they actually built something real. And I learned what a "probe" was. And I got to see Eric Paulos's web site:



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