All posts made in Apr. 2005:

The Age of Point-at-Things, Tom Coates.

It's the semiotcracy, the tendency and drive to merge the physical and virtual worlds.

Swift's problem [Nick's comment] is a navigation problem. Once we've got addressibility, there's the difficulty of constructing an address. Our technology is very good at global addresses (lat/long, URLs, ISBN), and very good at addressing things you can already see (Swift's domain, point+click, direct manipulation, visual affordances), but it's very bad at discoverability of addresses relative to your current position. As Engelbart put it, in real life we can say to a friend that the forks are in the second drawer down in the kitchen, but in the computer world we either have to express the address of the door in the context of the solar system, or walk to the kitchen and mutely point at it.

I must admit, naming makes me nervous. Names have power. Once an object is named, there's a force for it to keep that name. I'm concerned about a nonhuman objectivisation taking place where what's in my house is determined not by my use, but how the things were manufactured and named. I don't want to be part of a production line. I'd prefer, instead, to have no names or an infinity of names, and to make identification through a binding of addresses against possibilities. Polymorphism, phenotropics. We need reflection.

Explaining to Es why I like watching snooker on tv so much (she doesn't: it's slow and boring), I realised that snooker is rarely tense, and it's not enjoyable to watch at all: it's extremely satisfying, relaxing almost. Snooker is a game where you have to make a big mess at the beginning with the break, and then you're never going to get them all neat like that again, so it becomes a process of cleaning the balls away into the pockets very very carefully. First you put away the red, then the black, then the red, and, oh, I did that one wrong, so now I have to do the pink, and the red again... Observing a game of tidying with very specific rules. We're all on the spectrum.

There are two buttons my screenless iPod shuffle really needs: Next Track and More Like This. For any track, there are multiple axes which are "like this," and - in order of approximate significance - they are: same album+artist, same album, same artist, same playlists, same year+genre, same genre. When I'm listening to my shuffle, if I don't like a track I can hit Next. If I like a track, I should be able to hit More Like This, and pivot on the track to go on to play the album, or hit More Like This again to go to artist, or again to just focus on that genre. Then, if I don't like the track, hit Next to return to shuffle mode again.

Or maybe a better interface would be this: The shuffle should have two slider controls: volume and more/less like this. Don't like a track? Hit Less Like This and the next track is more randomised. Like a track? Hit More Like This are the next track is more likely to be from the same genre--hit it again and it's more likely to be from the same artist, the same album, share a BPM. The interactions should be: squeeze the shuffle for More Like This (it's a hug), tug the shuffle so it pulls on the lanyard for Less Like This (it's a flushing action).

cf. What I wrote about my shuffle before.

Perhaps it's the availability of the new interface, but both games I've played so far on the Nintendo DS are classics. WarioWare: Touched is a gallery of 100 ways the stylus can be used. Until you beat the game itself, it's rubbish to play--it's just too easy. But when you have all the levels available, and the characters representing them are wondering around the screen, and new high scores are giving you yet more toys and levels, and the game is teasing you to get you to play harder... then WarioWare comes into its own. Until then it's a game for game and interaction designers.

Project Rub, on the other hand, as well as looking stunning, has the best storytelling play I've encountered.

The main game is a love story played through a number of scenes. Each scene has up to three subgames, like having to jab scorpions off the girl's back, or ride a unicycle. You start off just trying to impress the girl, then you hang out, then you have to rescue her, and there's a big boss at the end. Every so often, inbetween these faster subgames, there's a love scene, and you shift from being very active to having to very slowly hold the girl's hand with your stylus. Beautiful. (You can read about the levels in this walkthrough. As you play, you also collect different outfits you can dress the girl in, in Maniac mode, and she appears like that at the midgame scorebaord. You can touch her, and she gets indignant.)

Here's the absolute best bit: The game gradually speeds up towards the end. You don't get breaks between the last few subgames, you don't know what's happening next, there are fewer save points, you have to repeat levels on a harder setting. Until, finally, there's a level which is all about moving your stylus as fast as possible. Right, so you're as active as you've been in the game. You literally can't put it down otherwise you'll forfeit your position.

Now comes the last level where [spoilers] you have to bring the girl back to life with heart massage and mouth-to-mouth. The level jumps between three actions, each lasting a few seconds: tapping the screen gently at the same beat as her heart, tapping the screen madly to scare Death away, and blowing onto the screen at the rate of the girl's breath. The breaths are repeated so you can't just take one big breath and let it out in little puffs: you have to synchronise your own breath with the rate on screen. Then the breathing rate you have to do increases, and suddenly the game is making you breathe faster--and you have to hold your head really close to the screen for the entire subgame, just incase it jumps from a heart tapping to breathing action. The level, while simple, suddenly becomes ultra immersive and physically adrenalising, your body responding to your faster breathing by getting exciting! It's a gameplay trick to influence your perception of the narrative as clever as loud sounds and flashing lights in a movie to hype you up, and it's woven into the story perfectly.

My 40Gb iPod has been ousted by a new 1Gb iPod shuffle. To be fair, I'd pay the money just for the fact I have an entire pocket freed up*, but I love it apart from that. First, the gripes: I have a large music collection and a terrible memory. I want a timed playlist of what I've listened to because I can often remember "I liked the 3 songs after song X which was at roughly 9am"--but that's just not available. So: new music discovery without the trackname payoff. It's very like radio. The use of the tactile interface to change tracks and volume is good too - the shuffle lives on the lanyard under my pullover so I have to be able to feel the buttons - but the button placement puts the iPod "look" above the interaction design. To explain: if you're listening to songs blind, you really need two functions: next, and play/stop. Finding the next track button at the moment requires knowing the orientation of the player which isn't always easy: it should be larger.

Things I like. Dan Hill's hymn to shuffle mode is spot on: it's curatorial culture and simplicity. The strength of the collage is reinforced by the constraints of the design: no screen means you have to listen to a song to evaluate it (ie, changing tracks is tedious); the lanyard puts the shuffle under your coat where it's harder to change tracks. You have to endure the music, and so it forces you to face your piss-poor playlist selection and take the minutes-long punishment... which of course throws into sharp relief the highs when the collage works just oh so well. I'd go further: the shuffle behaviour is not just true of music, but true of any relatively affluent or adventure-seeking lifestyle. If you don't like what's happening in your life: Next. If you're bored with your city, or your job, or your friends, or your significant other: Next. And if next still isn't good enough, Next! Rich kid meets hobo. It also taps into the cult of the individual, heigh-ho.

Things the shuffle should do: Apple understood the use of the shuffle well enough for the marketing and to cut out expensive features, but not well enough to change the famous circular interface itself. The Next button should be huge (and it also needs to record use: hitting Next is a useful datapoint). The Play toggle should be like a biro click-pen. The lack of a physically stateful Play button means the LED is next to useless: is it playing or is it off? I have no idea. Coming back to recalling what I was listening to, I need to be able to rate songs as I hear them. The shuffle needs a suck sensor on the end: Suck harder to rate higher (unintuitive linguistically, but I think it'd work).

* The classic iPod takes up an entire pocket. My other pocket has my wallet, my keys and my phone. Consequently all my pockets have holes in them. Moving away from the iPod form factor is a good move, not just because it monopolises space (the size as well as the shiny metal back is responsible for that), but because it's out of step with device size+shape. The modern form factor is that of the mobile phone: a fat oblong. You can have two of these per pocket and a handful of change. It fits in the palm, and comfortably in any pocket you're likely to have. There are pockets made in suits for exactly this size. New cameras are this size. You could probably sell a change of underwear and some breathmints in a disposable package this size. When we have glue devices - to plug into tvs to play games and see photos, to provide connectivity to a group, to play adhoc karaoke - they aspire to this size. What else?

The UK General Election has been called for 5 May*. The BBC's Andrew Marr provides (as always) a great context and analysis. I like my local representative, Clive Soley MP (Labour), not least because has a weblog (updated personally and regularly) which he uses to engage with his constituents. He's also sufficiently involved at the Commons, and although I don't agree with his whole voting record, his views and comments (from reading his weblog) are generally in tune with mine, and he seems to ask the right questions.

However, he's not getting my vote. There are certain issues where I'm not on the same card as Labour, or Soley, and there are broader issues to do with their respect for debate where I definitely disagree. Case in point: fox hunting. I don't like fox hunting. A ban, I believe, was something to aim for. There are a lot of issues, however, where I have a certain opinion and a lot of other people have a different one. That's an opportunity for debate, understanding, and attempting to grasp the other person's point of view. A ban, in short, shouldn't necessarily have been the outcome.

Just because I happen to agree with Labour on this issue doesn't mean I agree with the way they made the decision. If decisions carry on being made like that - forcing legislation through without full understanding of context and issues - I don't want to be on the other side of the fence. Over the Iraq war, a lot of people were.

There's an unpleasant lack of respect displayed by the Government for the electorate, and that's reflected by an unpleasant lack of respect citizens of this country have for each other and for people in general. There's an unhealthy obsession with consuming and entitlement, and with the individual.

I'm still closer to Labour than I am with any other party. But, like the Economist, I'm looking at the Liberal Democrats (actually mainly this Economist article, but it's behind a pay-for wall). They're strong and consistent on civil liberties, and their background in local government has demonstrated a respect for community and situated decision making. If they could back this up with a consistent economic policy (closer to the current levels), I'd be very pleased. And I believe they should have a chance to show what they're made of.

The Conservatives have not held the Government to account, and the Tory philosophy appears to be one of rubber-stamping whatever the gut response of the day is: I don't want to pay tax! I want better hospitals! I want to shoot burglars! This is a difficult moral dilemma so I'll legislate against it! It's stupid. If the country worked best with all individuals doing whatever they wanted the whole time, we wouldn't need a government, and just because you think things from moment to moment, it doesn't mean it'll work in practice. A government is there to provide a baseline to prevent it being a free-for-all where you have to watch your back (and what you say) and carry a gun, so this can be a civilised society where we can prosper freely, and are encouraged to help each other out, as citizens, not consumers. (And I don't mind saying that seeing the speeches of the Conservative choice in the constituency I grew up in makes me feel ill.)

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, have been on the ball and presented well thought-through critique in most interviews I've heard on the radio, have policies and - more importantly - a general attitude I want to see promoted, and a good chance of being strong in the next Parliament.

So despite the strong Conversative showing in elections in Ealing, Action and Shepherd's Bush (Labour about 50%, Conversative at 25% and Lib Dems at 10-15%), and the chance they'll get in if Labour support drops, I'm taking the risk. Even if the Lib Dems don't get elected here, it sends a message to the other parties that this is a point of view that needs to be regarded and taken seriously.

Short of some terrible manifesto error, the Liberal Democrats will get my vote.

* I think it's important to use the date-before-month convention when writing it down like this, because when we all move to a planet with a slow rotation we'll have to start numbering the months, and May 5 will become ambiguous.

Update: (I since understand that Soley is retiring. This makes no difference.)

I bought a Nintendo DS with WarioWare: Touched and Project Rub (aka Feel the Magic). I've finished WarioWare already. Previous versions took me longer because it was hard to get the button combinations right, but this version is all about the stylus, and there's nothing to remember: you look at the screen and it's just obvious where to cut, or rub, or twirl, or tap, or scribble. eg, instead of tapping the A button to close a hand to catch a falling rod, now I just tap the rod to catch it. Obvious. 5 seconds per game is positively roomy. Intuitive interfaces don't necessarily make for great gameplay. Actually, beating the game gives me access to all the levels and they get faster and harder, plus you get toys, so they were aware of this. The WarioWare designers appear to have put more effort into the level-up versions of the games this time around, which is great, and so the game is really coming into its own now. It is truly for the ADT generation.

The DS games themselves seem really more about exploring the possibilities of touch, and teaching the player all the various ways it can be used (as well as teaching tangible computing interface designers, heh). Project Rub is another game like this, all about direct manipulation of what's happening on-screen, and the side-effect is that the narrative (a love story) feels more immersive. Wonderful.

Again I'm struck not by how natural this interface feels, but how unnatural everything else feels afterwards. I have to tap an icon with a mouse to open it? What? Why not grab it with both my hands and put it towards me, or stretch it till i can read the text? Something more direct. I'm reminded of a line in the Life Hacks Live! session at Etcon: Alt-tab to switch applications is like telling your computer which program to run with Morse code.

Joy! The folks at the BBC got me an iSight camera for a leaving present, and I've been playing with it over the weekend. I downloaded ToySight, and as I always find, this physical way of interacting is incredibly compelling. I played for all of two minutes (skydiving and navigating the options), quitted the game, went back to IM with the video window open, and immediately waved my right hand to bring a menu up. And it didn't work! Frustrating!

Later that night, we watched TV by sending it upstairs using the camera and one-way video chat (in iChat). Really. That's what happens when the TV's downstairs, you want to watch it in bed, which is upstairs, and all you have is a laptop, another laptop, a wireless network, video chat, and a brand new iSight. You won't believe me, but this wasn't some kind of "let's see what crazy things we can do" act. We were watching a programme which didn't end till late, and were both really tired. Then there's was a sudden "oh, but we can!" moment. Why not? And it's sweet: a piece of dedicated tech to do this would be a pain to set up, with tuning and what-not, but here I understand all the little pieces of tech individually, and the only hard bit is seeing that they can be hooked together (that, and moving the heavy coffee table). There's a lesson here about making possibilities, I'm sure.

It got me thinking too. A webcam is basically a light cable with a wormhole in the middle. I plugged it into the TV light at one end, and it came out, as light again, from a screen upstairs. But the connectors are leaky: it took a foot and a half of plain air to act as the plug downstairs, and it was quite fun to go down and play with the leaky abstraction layers a bit. After watching TV on the laptop for a while, full screen, you kind of forget about the stack of connections - you forget that you're watching through a conduit - so going downstairs and popping your head into the frame during the ads or talking into the microphone is funny. Reinscribing TV.