Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Awed and bummed

In the years BK (before kids), the wife and I used to chase eclipses. Nothing — and I mean NOTHING - is more mind-blowing than standing in the shadow of the Moon.

So I’ve been pretty bummed the past few years, as family responsibilities have kept me from seeing the past few eclipses. Especially when I see videos like this:

However, I am very glad for my friends, who apparently had great skies for this morning’s eclipse.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to speak to the wife about giving it a shot in 2009. It’s been too long.

Galaxy hopping on a new UI

Most of you know I’m a casual to semi-serious gamer… (Yes, I hear you… “Ah-the-nerd-picture-is-complete-now-monkey-boy.”) Ahem. Anyway, ever since I obtained the Wii few months ago my hands have been glued to the controllers.

There’s something fascinating about encountering a new interface for the first time. Nintendo has taken a large risk in expecting users to learn a brand new way to interface with the console. Gone are the arrow keys, only to be replaced with the Wiimote, which, depending on the software, controls the interface as you physically move the controller up, down, toward, away, side-to-side, or roll it right-to-left.

Rather than enter into the XBox/PlayStation/PC realm of muscle car-like computing power and 3d rendering perfection, the Wii is attempting to blaze a new trail that brings focus back on gameplay. The gamble is that Nintendo has asked their customers to abandon the conventions that they have become quite used to, and re-learn a new way of interfacing with their favorite titles and characters.

A usability research company (Serco Usability Services) found that the Wii offered an opportunity to learn more about HCI. Some initial analysis led them to conclude:

So this novelty may be a double-edged sword… On the one hand it means that there are multiple new ways of allowing users to interact with games, which is a whole new world of fun; a massive potential. But, on the other hand, there are no conventions yet for how users expect the controller’s actions to be used in a game… The last time we remember such a blank canvas for interactive design was in the early days of the internet. Pages were colourful, flashing and had different fonts. Standards… were not in place… Sites were exciting, but hard to use. However, gradually, over the years, the fun of the web remained, but design conventions were derived from the sites that people found easiest to use (and consequently used most).

The company conducted a usability study on the Wii, and their results included the following:

In general, there is a tendency among users to assume that the two elements of the controls are the same as a regular controller, but chopped in half; the nunchuck is the left side of a controller; the Wiimote the right. It’s as if despite the conscious feeling that the controls are completely revolutionary, the user’s motor memory is not fooled by the hype! It treats them the same as if they were a ‘normal’ controller.

Time will tell if Nintendo’s customers stick with the new interface. As of this writing, Wiis are flying off the shelves. But the true test of success with any interface comes with widespread acceptance of it. If customers continue to buy Wii software titles, and the software companies continue to produce them, then Nintendo will be able to declare success.

Serco Wii usability article
Wii web browser usability review
UPA article on Wii usability (membership only)
Super Mario Galaxy review written by yours truly (oh yes, I went there)

User testing is more influential than you might believe

okcancel.jpgRecently the HATT list had its annual debate on the “Click the OK” or “Click OK” issue. (Yes, user assistance developers actually argue over this stuff. And it’s “Click OK“, if you’re wondering.)

Did you know that the OK button had its origins in usability testing? During interface development for their pioneering Lisa software, Apple designers noticed that users were having problems. When the software required positive or negative confirmation from the user, a small window appeared with two buttons: Do It and Cancel. The testers noticed that many users wouldn’t click Do It, and some were visibly annoyed. Via

The team noticed one user that was particularly flummoxed by the dialog box, who even seemed to be getting a bit angry. The moderator interrupted the test and asked him what the problem was. He replied, “I’m not a dolt, why is the software calling me a dolt?�

Get it? The nature of the low-pitch monitors required the use of sans-serif fonts, and most were reading the “i” in “It” as a lowercase “l” as in “Losery dude who writes about buttons in his blog.” The Lisa interface designers made the change to OK, it performed better in usability testing, and the rest is history.

What is even more intriguing is that this simple change reflected a new way of thinking about human-machine interaction. HOTB goes on to suggest:

“Do it!� is the same as previous versions of Enter or Execute. It’s commanding the machine to do something. OK is acquiescing to the machine, forming a partnership. In the end, the simple OK button may have contributed to the success of the Macintosh. It changed the relationship between person and computer, away from the master and slave mentality toward a friendlier world where the computer is a partner.

The moral? Any interface between human and machine - be it mechanical, electrical, or graphical - should be tested as early as possible during development. Make the case to those who fund you.

Digital ethnography & rapid culture change

This entertaining video illustrates the massive and significant cultural change that has occurred over the past two decades, as a result of moving information into the digital realm.

From pencil-and-paper to Web 2.0, in just under five minutes:

Hubble reprieved

    There once was a spacecraft named Hubble,
    whose finances fell into trouble.
    When its budget runs dry,
    it will fall from the sky
    and break up into nothing but rubble.

But it won’t happen anytime soon…

Whitney music box

The Whitney Music Box uses the theories of harmonic relationships to turn motion graphics into music.

At the beginning of each “song,” a line of dots begins to move around a central point. The outermost dot is on a three-minute cycle, meaning it orbits the center once every three minutes, and represents the first harmonic. The next dot in orbits twice every three minutes, representing the second harmonic; the third dot orbits three times every three minutes, and so on.

Protruding from the center is a radius line that “triggers” the harmonic tone when a dot or group of dots cross it (like a music box). As a result, scales, melodies, and chords are formed. If you know a little about music, it’s interesting to see the visual patterns that associate common musical forms, like the “three-pointed starfish” asterism that accompanies diminished chords.

One thing my astronomer’s eye kept noticing was a similarity between the way in which the visualizer’s dots spin and the way that many spiral galaxies rotate. I couldn’t help but wonder what a galaxy would sound like if plotted and visualized in this manner…. Maybe every galaxy has its own “song.”

Playing with the variations in the harmonic and chromatic scales makes for different visualizations and sounds. My particular favorites are variations 4 and 10. The latter sounds positively Kubrick-ian… straight-up 60s sci-fi.

The Whitney Music Box

About the WMB

From Apollo to Orion

Orion CEV
The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) in lunar orbit. has scooped the new moniker for the next NASA exploration initiative. The project will be called Orion.

30 years ago, Saturn rockets were launching Apollo capsules to the Moon. Within the next ten years, we will see their 21st century counterparts do the same thing all over again; only this time, Ares rockets will be launching Orion capsules.

Link 1

Link 2

Image credit & copyright NASA/John Frassanito and Associates.

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