Bringing the body to computing

The Apple (i)phone been presented as a very sexy gadget, but I suspect its real significance lies beneath the flash in its multi-touch interface. Like many people, I assumed that this was based on the work of Jeff Han and his team at New York University’s Courant Institute, which he demonstrated at a recent TED conference. However, a bit of digging around suggests that the basis of this UI is much more solid and based on work that has already resulted in real products (iGesture and Touchstream), much loved by their users.
The seeds of these products began their life in a PhD thesis by Wayne Westerman, at the University of Delaware, supervised by Professor John Elias. They then went on to found Fingerworks, which, while the purchase is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, was later bought by Apple.
The significance of their work is summed up in this extract from a press release in September 2002:
“Elias said the communication power of their system is “thousands of times greater” than that of a mouse, which uses just a single moving point as the main input. Using this new technology, two human hands provide 10 points of contact, with a wide range of motion for each, thus providing thousands of different patterns, each of which can mean something different to the computer.
While much about the computer has changed over the last three decades greater power, faster speeds, more memory what has not changed is the user interface.
“For what it was invented for, the mouse does a good job,” Elias said. “People accept the mouse and the mechanical keyboard because that’s the way it is. But there are limitations in terms of information flow. There is so much power in the computer, and so much power in the human, but the present situation results in a communications bottleneck between the two.”
Elias and Westerman have a better idea. “I believe we are on the verge of changing the way people interact with computers,” Elias said. “Imagine trying to communicate with another human being using just a mouse and a keyboard. It works, but it is slow and tedious.”
Elias said he could envision in the next 10 years “a very complex gestural language between man and machine.””

This would seem to answer a complaint about current computer technology raised by Brian Eno in interview in Wired twelve years ago:
“What is pissing me off about this thing? What’s pissing me off is that it uses so little of my body. You’re just sitting there, and it’s quite boring. You’ve got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That’s it. What about the rest of you?”
If Apple pushes forward with this technology, as I think they must, we may see their phone as being even more significant than the Mac in changing the way we interact with computers. Just as the Mac, regard by many when it was introduced as just a toy, brought the insights of the team at Xerox Parc to the mass market, the iphone, or whatever it will be called, will shift in perception from being just a sexy, desirable gadget to being seen as the forbear of a range of devices that engage much of our body and more of our mind.

Pretty good advice for all of us

Nabeel Hamdi’s code of conduct for professional planners, looks like pretty good advice for all of us:
“work backwards, move forwards; start where you can”
“recognise your own ignorance”
“never say ‘can’t'”
“be reflective”
“embrace serendipity”
“challenge consensus”
“look for multipliers”
“feel good about yourself”

So maybe we should all buy his book, “Small Change: The Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities” to show our support.(UK here, USA here)
(Too often I leave out the convoluted chain of links that lead to one of my posts. Since this chain is a bit simpler and contains two of my best sources of links and ideas, I thought I’d better try. It began with a link on Abe Burmeister’s excellent abstractdynamics to a thoughtful article by John Thackara on on his blog, where I was intrigued by a bit about Nabeel Hamdi, who I googled and found the bit that ended up here in a review of Hamdi’s book by Nick Falk on the Resurgence site, from which I took the quote.)

In good company

Back in 1995 Nick Routledge (Nick then, Nick nowish) invited me to contribute to his site World3. So I sent him a longish piece, “As We Might Learn: Vannevar Bush where are you now?”. In the short accompanying bio I described myself, in part as a joke, as presentologist. So I got a little frisson of pleasure,when delving into the writings of Russell Ackoff, to find a paper that begins:
“I am not the right person to have been assigned the topic, “Thinking about the Future.” I am a presentologist, not a futurologist.
So much time is currently spent in worrying about the future that the present is allowed to go to hell. Unless we correct some of the world’s current systemic deficiencies now, the future is condemned to be as disappointing as the present.
My preoccupation is with where we would ideally like to be right now. Knowing this, we can act now so as constantly to reduce the gap between where we are and where we want to be. Then, to large extent, the future is created by what we do now. Now is the only time in which we can act.”

A thought for 2007

Slightly stung by a comment by Gill on my first entry for 2007 asking why I had made no “drift” predictions, I refered her to a longish piece I posted on July 18, 2003, “It’s hard to predict”.
Reading it again I was quite pleased to see that my intuitions still stand and are still working their way through the shifting aspects of the world where we can practice purposive drift.
The three predictions were these:
“The first is that we should still expect a lot of disruptive, technological surprises to come.
The second is that network thinking, or what George Nelson called the “connections game”, is going to become a key ability in life and in business.
And the third is that analogue interfaces to digital media are going to be a hot area of development over the next few years.”

Taking one little chunk out of this longish piece as my thought for 2007 (and something I should pay attention to myself) I put forward this one:
“… the strongest advice I could give to any individual or business is to become sensitive to where you fit in your networks, learn to think in terms of nodes and connections and the complex interactions and feedback between them, and be conscious of the dynamics of your patterns of connection. Whether you are aware of it or not, your success or failure is going to bound up in how well or not you identify, create and navigate your networks.”