Touching New Interfaces
By David Pescovitz, Thu Mar 24 08:45:00 GMT 2005

Nokia's oracle of concept development, Matt Jones, gets physical with new handset interfaces.

Matt Jones and Chris Heathcote are Nokia's oracles. Officially, Jones is a concept development manager and Heathcote is a user experience manager in Nokia's Insight & Foresight group. Unofficially, the two are inciting a revolution in the way we interact with our mobile devices, and each other. At last week's Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, they wowed the crowd with a demonstration of a Nokia's Near Field Communication, a cell phone shell containing a reader for wireless electronic tags. According to the researchers, NFC isn't just another wireless standard though. Rather, it's a harbinger of the "tangible interfaces" to come.

TheFeature: What exactly is a tangible interface?

Jones: We're trying to come up with ways to rethink and remap the idioms of computing and communications that have traditionally been tied to the desktop and laptop so that they work better in the contexts in which people use smart phones. Embodied interaction through tangible interfaces is one way to do that.

TheFeature: Can you give a concrete example?

Jones: We're looking at how touch can be used to execute a number of tasks or interactions so you don't have to switch contexts from the real world to the world inside the screen. For instance, one person could touch his device to someone else's and give them a "digital gift," to borrow a phrase from our old boss Marko Ahtisaari. That digital gift might be something as simple as a URL or a photo that I've taken of a moment we just shared.

TheFeature: Awww. That's sweet.

Jones: Well, I don't want to get too Hallmark about it. All joking aside though, the touch technology provides measurable quantitative differences in the efficiency by which people can complete that kind of task. In terms of the measurements that people wearing white coats take inside usability labs, touch technology could reduce the number of interactions required by an order of magnitude. To set up a swap over Bluetooth might take twenty or thirty clicks. This completes the interaction with one touch. Although, for security purposes, we also have a confirm button. There's something very human about giving someone a gift while looking them in the eye and touching the devices together instead of both people squirreling away in the interfaces trying to do the data exchange.

TheFeature: Near Field Communication doesn't actually require the devices to physically touch, though.

Jones: That's true, but the range with the readers is actually quite close. We made a design decision so it maps to touching. If you look at people trying to use transit cards or other contactless technology, the feedback they get isn't very definite. They hover around the reader and that's an uncomfortable experience. Touching is more satisfying and you don't have to think about it as much.

TheFeature: How do you see tangible interfaces playing out five years from now?

Jones: In five years, I think we will look back at the anachronisms of "connecting things" and shake our heads a little bit. The sharing of personal content -- contacts, pictures, etc. -- will get a lot more fluid. That will encourage some interesting patterns of use.

TheFeature: Like what?

Jones: One thing that ethnographers have observed is that people with cameraphones love to take a picture and immediately show it to the person they're with. It's a moment of weird verification. I take a picture of a place where we just were together and I show it to you straight away. This kind of digital gift giving will become very commonplace--photos but also other content like recommendations they've made around a local area. There could also be interesting overlaps between location-based data and touch technology where your device interacts with the environment. You might touch a bus stop or a museum exhibit and receive a very useful bit of digital feedback from a physical thing.

TheFeature: Beyond touch, what is another tangible interface that interests you?

Jones: Coupling NFC with accelerometers to provide gesture and context input gives very rich ways to overlay digital interactions onto the real world with more physical, tangible, embodied relationship. The people who are leading this charge, as per usual, are the games developers. Nintendo says that the next ten years in gaming will not be about graphics innovations but game play, particularly interface methods.

TheFeature: How else might user interfaces be impacted by the integration of various sensors into handsets?

Jones: The general improvement in the ability of devices to sample their context is a huge trend. There are quite a few enhancements that can be given to devices that are more subtle than the big headline-grabbing ones like touch technology. For example, if you're walking a little faster, accelerometers might tell the interface to up the font size by two points. Or you might shake the phone to dismiss a call you don't want to take. All of these are about a flip in the design process. We try to look at technology as being in our world instead of us being in its world. Technology should support better real world interactions in tandem with the digital interactions, rather than instead of them.