Vegas For New Years Plus Visualization Techniques

I’m heading to Las Vegas for New Years, pretty much on half a whim. I’m flying out today at 4PM (to give you a sense of the randomness, I originally had a flight at 5:15, but I checked this morning and a 4PM flight was available, so an hour earlier it is) and returning tomorrow at 6PM. I’ve heard the Strip is shoulder to shoulder with people so tight that you can’t really move and everybody is just hanging out (unless, of course, you know somebody who can hook you up to get into a club or something — which we don’t). This ought to be interesting.

The topic of information visualization is one of the most interesting fields of HCI, I think. Many of the complicated problems that we encounter in our day to day lives (in and outside of the computer relm) are assisted by some novel display technique. A Thomas Guide map is a great example of how a huge area can be shown and stiched together by a very simple reference map. Two of papers that I’ve found interesting in this field are “Toolglass and Magic Lenses: The See-Through Interface” (from Xerox PARC, 1993) and “Animation: From Cartoons to the User Interface” (from Stanford and Sun, 1993). Below are two commentaries I wrote on these papers when I was in school.

Toolglass Article

In the Toolglass and Magic Lenses article, the authors (Bier, Stone, Pier, Buxton, and DeRose) detail a system they designed that used transparent lenses to interact with the user interface. The toolglass is a panel that is controlled by the non-dominate hand, and a magic lens is a filter that plugs into the toolglass and is used in context of the toolglass’s. There were a couple of interesting parts of this user interface that I found very interesting. First of all, the use of the non-dominant hand is a genuinely good idea. One thought I’ve had for some time was the style of interfaces we use today is two dimensional. It is very easy for one mouse to map to the Cartesian coordinates of a screen. For there to be a more powerful interface that can be more efficient at displaying data, a third dimension must be added, which would require an additional input device (e.g. a second mouse). As this article shows, a second input device is valuable even for a two dimensional interface. I particularly liked how the toolglass gave an incredibly context sensitive approach to computation. The article mentions work by Kabbash who found that the non-dominant hand may even be better than the dominant hand for coarse positioning, which is exactly what is needed for context sensitive menus. I found the context dependence of the Toolglass to be much more interesting than the magic lens demonstrated. The magic lens where quite powerful for the demonstrations that the showed, but I felt like they could have been extended quite a bit further for more practical day to day operations in general computing. For example, a magic lens that would be used with a Calendaring program that when applied would show what emails created the ‘paper trail’ for the appointment. All in all, I found this interface to be interesting, particularly in the context dependence nature of the non-dominant mouse. I think this idea could have gone further into day-to-day application had there been some magic lenses that would fit with what I use computers for.

Animation Article

The second article really hit home for me. I’m a rabid animation art fan and I own quite a few Chuck Jones pieces along with Disney pieces, so the introductory quote sold me on the concepts before I had even read the paper. The crux of the second article was about the use of animation style motion to convey a sense of continuity to the interface. There are three fundamentals of animation that the authors of the papers applied to interfaces: solidity, reinforcement and exaggeration (the list is from a book by two other animation greats, Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas).

The first, solidity, is a very DM type of feeling. The box on screen should act as if it is a real life box, for example, where one can pick it up from any part and manipulate it naturally. The authors suggest that in order to have this effect on a computer, the frame rate needs to be high enough to draw the object, and if the object moves more than half its width, then a motion blur must be applied to ‘appease the eye’. Lastly, to maintain solidity, the object must arrive and exit, and not simply appear and disappear. This again is a very DM type of idea, where the interface is grounded to real-world behaviors

The second animation technique is reinforcement, which is when the interface reinforces the illusion of reality. The authors give the example in the self interface of when a window is moved around, it moves slowly out of its location, quickly to it, and slowly finalizes on its new spot. This helps lets the user keep track of the object, but still keeps the object moving. I really liked the other idea the developed in this section on the use of different motion paths for different styles of movement. Under the users manipulation, objects would move in a straight line, but under the computers movement, the object would move in an arc. I think this subtle different would help users clearly understand what the interface was doing.

The third is exaggeration, which the authors suggest even if it is not very physically grounded is necessary for keeping the user engaged in the interface. I totally agree with this thought. The interface, say when a dialog is displayed, overshoots its target and snaps back, is very easy on the eye and engaging.

The rest of the article goes into why use cartoon animation, and the authors argue that it keeps the user engaged. I think it goes beyond that, as it helps convey many more subtleties to the user. In Mac OS X’s Aqua interface are many cartoonie subtleties, such as a dialog box swoops down from the top title bar of an application. While this may seem trivial and unnecessary, I believe that it in fact helps the user know that the message is coming from the application. In the Windows XP world, small dialog bubbles appear from the tool tray, which are very nice as they show which small icon is doing the ‘talking’ and keep what are normally very system type of events a bit engaging.

Back from Vacation and Back to Work

I returned from vacation last night and am back in the very rainy Bay Area! It’s acutally a bit odd to be back here, it doesn’t quite feel like home. Vacation was great, saw all sorts of Mayan ruins (Tulum, Coba, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Kabah, and Sayil), hung out on the beach at Playa del Carmen (1, 2, 3, 4), saw monkeys at Punta Laguna, explored the cenotes at Aktun-Chen, explored the cities of Merida and Valladolid, and of course ate lots of Mexican food. After the Yucatan I went to Boulder to hang out with Ami’s family for a while and that was quite enjoyable, as well.

Out on Vacation and Cognitive Engineering

I’m hanging out in SFO on T-Mobile’s HotSpot waiting for my 12:50AM red-eye to Cancun. I’m leaving today to Cancun until December 23rd. From Cancun I’m heading to Boulder, CO until the 28th when I return to the Bay Area. I’m looking forward to this vacation as it’ll be nice to get away from the cold Bay Area weather in Mexico to go to the snowy beauty of Colorado. Work has been quite a bit more relaxed this past week as our release has stablized and we’re now looking foward towards what’s next for Hotmail.

Reeves had asked me randomly one day to post different things that I read as a CogSci major which is a great idea since I personally think it’s very interesting. Further, I don’t have much of record myself what interesting and compelling things I’ve read and looked at. So, in the continual vein of making my blog more compelling, here are a couple of really facinating sites/projects that I found to be quite interesting:

  • Don Norman’s Jnd Site ( — one of the grandfathers of usability and cognitive science, his site provides valuable insight in to how to think about design and usability
  • Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman) — a great book by Don Norman that explores how everyday objects can make people more efficient and intelligent in our everyday lives. One of the most useful and quoted books in design.
  • Cognition in the Wild (Edwin Hutchins) — book that most changed my way of thinking in the world on the absoultly facinating topic of distributed cognition and how we process data in our world. It attepts to explain why, we as humans, are more intelligent and capable now verus 500 years ago when we as a species have not evolved (hint: our society and culture have grown/evolved and the greater cognition has been augumented). Perhaps one of the most quoted books in the field.

That’s it for now, I’ll post more about visulation, information display, cognitive engineering, situated cognition, etc.

Furniture Matters

As odd as it may sound, the style and arrangment of a room directly effect the acceptablity and comfort of people in a room. I was thinking about differences between where I used to live in San Diego and where I live now in Sunnyvale and noticed that the living rooms in both had seat placements facing a television. All the bodies in the room are at angles to each other, making the TV the focal point of body language. On the other hand, in San Diego, the kitchen had a low table with ample seats around it that made it very inviting to sit down over a newspaper or some food to chat and generally hang out. The table affords some protection to your personal space allowing people to interact freely. The affordance of personal space also becomes very relevant in the office. At work, my back is to the door of my office, with my computer and desk in the corner opposite of the the door and the door’s little window. When people come in to talk to me, I can’t exactly figure out what to do with my body or hands and I realize that it’s because the manner in which my office is set up compromises my (and the other person in my office) personal space. Many other people’s offices are arranged backwards from mine, so the desk faces the door and the back of the computer is exposed. The desk (much like the table) allows people to set up their personal spaces and produces comfort in the situation.

Flip, Flip, Flip!

Le nouveau Hotmail commenera aujourd’hui a 11h. Felicitations! This last week was awesome, mainly by the fact Ami was down from last Saturday to last night. My parents came up as well from Wednesday to Saturday, which meant I got the see them and visit a bunch of old family friends in the Bay Area as well as see some very cool houses up here. Ami and I did a bunch of things, like partying in SF with Andrea’s cousin, cooking a veggie Thanksgiving Dinner, saw the Fall Colors, hung out in downtown San Jose with a bunch of friends, and went to SFMOMA with my old college buddies. Looking at the pictures I took over the last week, it doesn’t seem like I have any of my family. That’s too bad.

We’ve started planning work on the next version of Hotmail and I’m doing brainstorming on what kind of cool features would be compelling to add. Hotmail at its core is a consumer service and needs to innovate in the consume space. It seems these days that web email providers (Yahoo and Hotmail primarily) follow the MS Outlook feature set; however, Outlook was never intended for consumers, it’s a business product. We need to innovate at Hotmail in order to keep members and create a compelling service that people would actually want to buy. What kind of features could make Hotmail better? (this is a solicitation for comments)