LifeHacker (LH) invites us to comment on the Aurora Concept video from Adaptive Path (AP). The video envisions “new ways people could interact with the Web in the future based on projected technological trends and real-world scenarios.”
After watching the vid, I skimmed the comments to see if someone had already said what I was thinking. Most of the comments were about its look. Either it 1) “it’s too different” or 2) “it’s not different enough.” IMO, seriously missing any of the many points the video makes. Can’t say I’ll be any more brilliant on the subject, but, at least, I hope to be on-topic. Keep in mind that this is just the first in several videos, so my criticisms may be addressed later.
LH’s question “what will browsing the web be like a decade from now,” led me to think I’d see a concept browser. The scope is bigger than a next-generation FireFox, though. The vision blurs the boundary between browser and operating system, a point made in a few of the more salient comments on the LH post. I didn’t find anything in the presentation to be far-fetched even for today. The reasons it’s not a vision of today are the same reasons it’s not a vision of tomorrow.
I was interested in two aspects of the presentation. First, the browser is a god-like app that mediates the entire technology experience. Indeed, my first thought was “it’s a Mac world.” Second, data and tools are organized in two dimensions using concepts of perspective to represent fuzzy relationships between apps, data and us.
Moderating the entire user experience through a browser isn’t a new idea: it’s been tried, and it’s failed. It’s failed not because other folks hadn’t thought of the same grapical elements. It’s failed because it’s a solution requiring a degree of homogenity that is only ever fleeting, and, casts a browser as a monolithic application. Monolithic apps are bad. Good for corporate boards, maybe, but bad for users, because they’re inflexible and proprietary.
The degree of interoperability AP envisions requires a tremendous amount of cooperation between technologies. “If only everyone thought like me, everything would be perfect.” However, people are fickle, competitive, frequently contentious, often disagreeable, sometimes pathological or criminal. Our technologies reflect that.
No sooner would Susan share her weather station data with Frank, the software would automoatically update, only to embed meta data that displays a holographic thunderstorm in front of my monitor. (Now that would be cool.) Sadly, this nifty new feature embeds meta data somewhere where it breaks the graphing tool in the browser. Sound familiar? Jesse James Garrett, the video’s narrator, says the browser reconizes a selection in the browser as a valid dataset. That makes me want to sob. Yeah, and that’s the hard part. I can feel my blood pressure roiling. WTF do people think we programmers have been trying to do all these years! I feel better now. Thanks. Whew. In short, AP’s vision is heavy on form (that’s not particularly new) and light on function (which is the hard part). Maybe future videos will explore this part. I hope so. But I’m skeptical.
My second interest was in the user interface. I’m always interested in the problem of representing three and four dimensions in a two-dimensional plane. However, brains do that all the time. The AP concept uses techniques of perspective to represent relationships between data, applications, and the user. Size, brightness, and shading all combine to hint at distance which represents time…time since a user last used some data, for example. Location in two-dimentions and size are also used as cues for the degree of relationship between things. The UI attempts valiantly to deal with a very real problem that hasn’t been “solved” by any means. The problem is how to make an overwhelming amount of information available to a user while not throwing him into a catatonic state from shear overload? Incorporting elements from visual art is natural, of course. I don’t care, as many commenters do, whether the desktop is cluttered or if the cloud model is usable. The point is to model possible visualizations. I give the video high marks for the consideration given the issue.
Again, I quarrel with the apparent focus on one solution—the monolithic solution. We know there are different styles of learning, though I suspect it’s like the right-brain, left-brain thing…far too simplistic. However, I find in my experience that I need more than one form to make sense of information. Some information makes sense to me presented graphically, some textually, some aurally. What works well for me, doesn’t work for everyone. What we need to envision, in my humble opinion, is way to flip between modes transparently.
The other issue we keep ignoring is accessibility. My dad was a construction contractor. In the 70’s commercial and public construction started to include handicapped bathrooms or stalls. I vividly recall Dad saying that was dumb because “those people don’t go out alone.” My immediate thought was “well, maybe they would if buildings had bathrooms they could use.”
Surely someone has raised this issue before, but the iPhones have one horrible aspect that is truly monstrous. Visually impaired people do not seem to exist in the iPhone world. It’s one thing to accept that not everyone can go everywhere or use any tool. It’s quite another to create an example of a ubiquitous and nearly essential product that doesn’t even acknowledge someone’s existence. Very little of our technology vision considers people with poor motor control or limited vision. So, buttons are small and the same color as the background. That will no doubt change as the baby boomers continue to age. (At the first Harley logo adult diapers, though, I’m getting off this bus.)
So, so far, the video presented as a vision of the future is more of the same. It presents a monolithic application that depends on a cooperative environment. Just a modern transportation systems are starting to see fixed, large mass transportation solutions as inflexible and costly, we need to reimagine not just technology built, no evolved, from much smaller building blocks, but we have to also image a business case that supports building smaller, evolvable components.