Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Physical Interfaces: BumbTop, the iPhone and Leopard

Recently I rewatched Anand Agarawala's demo BumbTop at TED 2007. BumbTop is a three dimension cubicle desktop. Documents on the desktop have physical qualities like weight, size, light reflection etc. They can be stacked, flipped through, bumbed into and organized in ways more similar to a real world desktop.

What struck me in the demo was the audience's reception. Partly due to Anand's humorous presention style, but largely because of the surprise effect the interface holds, the audience was clapping, laughing, even cheering. When the iPhone was introduce in January there were tons of moments like these. When Steve Jobs first scrolled through a song list with the flip of his fingers, the audience erupted. It is the RE-cognition factor. In that instance we identify a resemblance between real life physical behavior and the onscreen simulation of such physicality. It is a magical moment.

At the WWDC 2007 Steve Jobs presented the latest beta release of Leopard, Apple's upcoming OS for Macintosh. For a long time I imagined Apple's designers to arrive at their user interface solution by cheer genius. It never occured to me that the might take their "inspiration" from others, even purchase UI solution like Coverflow (first introduce to the general public with iTunes 7) from Steelskies . With the release of Leopard it will be a standard way to view information in its redesigned Finder.

"Stacks" in Leopard's Desktop

Leopard continues and broadens its use of animation as a general interface element. The Dock tags on the new "stack" feature, which may have been borrowed from BumbTops stack function, but lacks its physicality. Other Leopard features show me the direction Apple's interfaces are headed. Coverflow, Time Machine, Stacks and Spaces are all feature that rely heavily on animation. At the heart of them is Core Animation, a set of animation routines offered to developers to easily produce animated interfaces.

Leopard looks fun to use, but generally feels light, digital and spacey (quite literally in Time Machine). Animations in Leopard accelerate and decrease in speed which is a quality taken from a real world physicality. There is a new quality of light and shadow peeking through the new 3d-ish Dock design, but compared to BumbTop there is no sense of weight. The reason for that might be that we are still using a mouse pointing device.
In BumbTop is strikes me as odd to manipulate objects imbued with weight using a mouse pointer which cannot return physical feedback that resembles pushing weighted objects around. In makes sense that Leopard lacks the physical quality of weight. Leopard will also run on the iPhone, where the manipulation of information is accomplish with your fingers. While weighted pressure on its multi-touch surface will have no bearing, speed of movement does and thus represents one more step in the direction of physical interfaces.

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