Saturday, March 6, 2010

Give the Pie a chance!

One of my recent HCI classes reminded me of my old Bachelor thesis at FCS Iasi (at my previous university) and how much I wish pie menus would finally claim their rightful place in everyday GUI design. Jared (our teacher) had us debating on the implications of Fitts' law and pie menus came up in the conversation.

This is precisely what my Bachelor thesis touched on. Back in the days when Windows Presentation Foundation was the new kid on the block, I looked at the problem of overcrowded desktops and Start menus. The issue was simple: I suspected that just as I was tired of navigating this
so was everybody else who had more than a media player and a browser installed on their computer. The classic alternative is desktop shortcuts - but unless you're very thorough with every new installer you run, the desktop too can easily become just a wider version of your Start menu. Let's face it, we all know people whose computers look like this:

My prototype application was called Arlequin and it ran on a dedicated mouse button (or a customized key combination) on top of all other applications. It stored all your favorite shortcuts, web links, documents and an instant search box in a pie menu positioned right around the mouse pointer.

The catch was this: the user had to define the shortcuts himself - no default installers placing them in, no "recently used", no bookmarks toolbar, no "My Computer". If you know you're gonna use them every day, put them in - if not, they can stay out of your way. And while we're at it, who cares if they're websites, games or the paper that you're just working on? Why discriminate? They're all just as important if you have certain use patterns. So let them all live together in the same place, at the tip of your mouse.

So after weeks in a gestation process that looked like this:

and some (at the time) twisted XAML that looked like this
It finally ended up something like this:

Neat, huh? Well, apparently it was neat enough for an A.

Now all of this makes me wonder - why haven't pie menus really caught on? If you have a good answer to that, do let me know.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My Editing Romance

I must have mentioned before my eternal passion for films. What you can see below is an elective project that I managed to swing my way into being all about video editing.

The story behind this short film is simple. Some of my fellow ITPD colleagues were making a short educational clip on how to find a good research question. My initial thought was to join their project, but I later realized that the most interesting things were actually happening behind the camera - as is always. Seeing their daily struggles with planning, filming, technology and everything else, I decided that this would make a far more interesting movie. After all, my main focus was video editing - on what, was never specified.

If I had pictures of this process, they would all be with me in front of a computer clicking around in Final Cut Pro. I suspect the only variable thing would be the size of the bags under my eyes. I adore video editing to the point that I don't mind losing lost of sleep over it. Sadly, I have no formal training in it whatsoever. Everything I do, I do from my gut feeling and my movie going experience.

But all this is not accidental. In his book How the Paper Fish Learned to Swim : A Fable about Inspiring Creativity and Bringing New Ideas to Life , Jonathon Flaum talks about how managing creative innovation is like being a film editor. I was pleasantly surprised by this metaphor and the more I looked at it, the more sense it made. He says
The editor’s concern is how to make all of the footage converge into one tightly realized idea. The editor’s task is to trim the excess and find the essential – to trace the connecting symbols, themes, dialogue and movement of the work and allow it to speak for itself as a unified whole.
Indeed, this makes sense - after an editor has done her job, there is now a finished product, where before there was just a collection of ideas. 

That being said, here's the movie.

*some of the dialogue is pretty low, so do turn on the subtitles (captions) using the button in the lower right corner.
**Disclaimer: I have credited all the short music excerpts used in this video. Their use is not affiliated in any way with the University of Southern Denmark and/or any of its subsidiary institutions. That being said, this is an amateur project and this video has not been publicly broadcasted or used for any commercial or official purposes in any way. If you find the use of any of these fragments in any way problematic, please contact me and I will take it offline.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Musical Lamp

One of the most engaging projects I've ever done was to design and build an interactive lamp - all from scratch - in one week. This project was special for a number of reasons.

Firstly, for requiring so many different skills. Just coming up with a strong concept was not enough for this project - it also had to be realizable. What do you get when you combine foamcore, fabric, electronic wiring, a microcontroller, guitar sounds and some C# programming all in one? The answer is "Indigo - the musical lamp".

Secondly, I because I took a very creative approach to it. Right from the beginning, I considered very carefully how much time I could spend on electronics vs modeling vs programming. But artistically, I had no idea where it would end up. I just knew I wanted a lamp that people could play like a musical instrument, using both of their hands. I took the idea and ran with it, adding another level of detail as I was going along with the building process.

I started from a simple shape and then began to play with it to create something that would look touchable and organic. 

I then went on to give it a smoother, curvier shape that would invite people to touch it. At this point though, I became concerned that covering the foam in any of the typical coating would spoil that effect. The idea later popped up: not coating, but fabric! 

But before you can have an "artistic message" and all... you need to have the circuitry for it. I've never done more soldering in my life! What you can't see in the picture here is that my fingers were scratched and torn from knotting wires all day :).

Aaaaah... all those numbered wires and sockets. You can see the Arduino board in the background and my laptop ready to unleash some C# fury and guitar sounds whenever LEDs were connected. 

One magic trick I pulled out of my sleeve was to use a layer of soft coating underneath all that fabric. This made it pleasant to touch and - it later turned out at the exhibition - very huggable. A friend of mine told me it looked like a Muppet.

On a different note, I have a soft spot for high contrast, so I couldn't resist the geometric, black and white print. Great idea, since it caught everybody's attention instantly - but a pain in the neck to work with! My eyes hurt for hours! I don't recommend it to anyone. 


"Ok, so just move the lights around and listen to the different sounds it makes! Sometimes it's a guitar, sometimes a flute, sometimes.. a cat!" 

  "Was that a cat?" 

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hali Chair - the movie

Following my inner film director's voice, I decided that the best way to showcase the Hali Chair prototype would be to make a short film. My motivation was simple - although the prototype speaks very nicely for itself, there is no doubt that only the complete usage scenario can make it shine. But in true film making fashion, this is all easier said than done.

This 2 and a half minute long movie spent 3 days in my head (gestating) and then 15 long hours in the making. And that's not even a lot by industry standards! Since I'm no Christopher Nolan, scripting, shooting, directing and editing all in the same day proved draining. But I'll do it again any day of the week.

I love storyboarding! One of my guiltiest fantasies is to have to storyboard an entire music video on a 9 hour long flight, right before plunging into a crowded set full of people awaiting my instructions(*). On a more down to earth note, this is one of those little things that always reminds me of how much the software industry still has to learn from projects in other disciplines. 

Even in a primitive little tool like iMovie, editing is still a pleasure. I once heard a comparison between film editing and managing innovation (and creativity) - they both require a steady hand, talent and the ability to make decisions at every step of the way.

A good reminder of what everybody's brains looked like at the end of the day. 

Well, this is it!

if the dialogue seems too low, you can turn on the subtitles (captions) using the button on the bottom right. 
link to youtube video

(*)Optionally, I'd also like a film crew following me around, shooting a 'making of', two assistant directors waiting for me impatiently at the airport and the certainty that I'll have to spend my next week in the editing room no matter what. And yes, I am fully familiar with the saying "Be careful what you wish for."

Feeling cold? Hug the chair.

Critical design is meant to raise awareness on different issues that the users would otherwise ignore. The theme of this project was indoor climate in Alsion - our university building - and the goal was to create an artifact that would address some of the problems that that its inhabitants currently have.

Looking back, I realize that in a way, the point of the project was to learn more about the creative process itself. We went through 3 different phases: getting to know our users, presenting them with a critical artifact and then designing the final prototype based on all of the above.

Having a broad definition of indoor climate - ranging from noise to room setting to temperature and CO2 levels - the first challenge was to narrow down the palette of options and focus on the most important problems that our users had.
Probably the most important lessons I've learned working on this as part of a team was that "brainstorming" is not just a word for "let's see what we can do", but a process - and it needs to be managed accordingly. Our initial failure to stick to any brainstorming recipe lead to competing ideas and tension inside the team that, in turn, prevented us from moving forward in any way. We took a step back, did our homework and then started from a clean slate and doing everything by the book. It worked wonders - in no time, we had literally produced a wall of ideas.
After two long days, the specifications for the Hali (which means "hug" in Finnish) Chair finally saw the light of day. This is a rough list - we prioritized it the next morning and then I was off to sewing and tailoring.

To be honest, this was all unexpectedly fun. Coming from a software background, I always find it incredibly rewarding to build something tangible that you can interact with rather than abstract lines of code.

Oh, look at the mess I've made :)

This is the final artifact. The Hali Chair is all about personal climate: using a few simple gestures, the user can warm up or cool down the chair - depending on how he's feeling. In addition to this, the Hali Chair communicates with the building's indoor climate system and its supervisor (the Window Master) so that, on the long run, the conditions in the room could be adjusted accordingly.

For a better description of the prototype, see the video in the next post.