29 8 / 2011
The study of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) emerged in the early 1980s as a branch of computer science that leveraged cognitive science to better understand and empower users of interactive computing systems. With the proliferation of personal and mobile computing devices, the focus on user-centered design has become increasingly important and the past three decades has seen HCI evolve to incorporate ideas from various disciplines– ranging from design to psychology - and form an independent discipline by itself. John Caroll, one of the founders of HCI, explains that the simple concept of usability has now grown to encompass qualities like fun, well-being, collective efficacy, aesthetic tension, enhanced creativity, support for human development, and many others.
Good design and usability is no more an ‘added feature’ of products, it’s a necessity. The iPad, one of the most popular post-PC devices of the current age, is a prime example of how user-centered design and focus on human-computer interaction can revolutionize the way humans interact with computers. The iPad focuses on a tactile and touch-based experience that provides instant feedback to the user at the physical point of contact. As compared to a normal computer that operates through a separate mouse and keyboard, the iPad is ridiculously easy to use, making it a device even four year olds can master!
The next decade
The long term focus of HCI related research is to make interactions of individuals and groups with digital devices and information easier and more intuitive. Some of the latest topics of research are discussed below.
Group Interfaces: Researchers are working on the creation of group interfaces that allow large groups of people to do collaborative work.
Augmented Reality: AR layers relevant digital information into our view of the real world. (Remember Tom Cruise’s sunglasses in Mission Impossible 2? It’s that -except all you need now is your iPhone)
Embedded Computation: Embedded Computation strives to make computing ubiquitous – hence moving computation from desktop computers to a user’s physical environment. From the lighting fixtures in your home to your very own skin – everything acts as a medium of interaction with digital devices and information. The MIT Media Lab is famous for its work in this field.
So what’s the future in HCI looking like? My answer could be summarized in two words: Minority Report.
This 2002 movie seems to have accurately nailed what the future is going to hold for us. I’m not talking about a future after fifty years. Looking at the work going on at companies like Oblong Industries, this is the next decade. Mezzanine, Oblong’s product for collaborative group work, allows a group of people in a room to “synthesisize information in the most collaborative way possible”. Another product, g-Speak, is an impressive gesture based spatial operating system that looks right out of a sci-fi movie!
Yes, the future looks like it’s going to be pretty darn cool.
Pranav Mistry’s ‘Sixthsense’ is also an excellent example of how research in the field of HCI is changing the way we interact with digital data. In his TED Talk , he shows the world “a wearable gesture interface that augments the real world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information.”
Wearing this device, you can take pictures using a natural framing hand gesture. You can turn any wall or surface into a display that allows you to perform basic computer interactions like browsing photos, checking email or accessing maps. You can even draw on the surface using fingertip movements. All of these are just a small subset of features it has. (Watch the video for a complete demo)
Pranav Mistry’s SixthSense and Oblong’s Mezzanine give us a peek into what the future holds for us. HCI-related research is aiming to make computing ubiquitous, intuitive and simple. This applies to everything – from design of web interfaces to mobile devices. Applications and interfaces that decrease the cognitive load on the user and make interaction with digital devices and information easier are going to define the years to come.