Another Restart. This time, Something Interesting

HAL 9000

HAL 9000

Rather than try to write something profound (at least on the surface), I thought I’d start writing in this blog again with an observation about today’s date, at least in terms of the History of Computer Science:

On today’s date, HAL, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey turns 17 year’s old, as the movie says:

I am a HAL 9000 computer, Production Number 3. I became operational at the HAL Plant in Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you. It’s called ‘Daisy’

I always thought that the production number being 3 was intriguing. It couldn’t be a nod to Windows 3.1, the first successful version of that software because the book was written decades before that appeared on the scene.  What happened to production numbers 1 and 2? (It was mentioned, I seem to remember, that HAL 1000-8000 series had problems of some sort and were “not entirely successful”).

The idea of a mutinous, murderous central computer is a theme that is still alive and well in movies today: the movie WALL-E has one of these, the Autopilot computer that looks a bit like HAL’s red eye inserted into an old fashioned ship’s wheel (and the voice actor who gets to do it, in the credits is, wait for it… Macintalk, the speech synthesis software on the Macintosh (!))


Needless to say, in this year, 2009, there is no HAL 9000, no similar level of Artificial Intelligence, no ships to Jupiter, and no permanent base on the moon. We do have a space station, but Pan Am airlines never survived to create that beautiful space liner, and although there is talk of private citizens doing flights, it is Virgin Airlines that is going to be doing that.

Long Time, No See?

I admit it, I’ve neglected this blog. I could provide the usual excuses, but I think I’ll spare you, dear reader (if you’re still out there somewhere), the explanations.

I’ve been a little better about my personal blog, Loud Murmurs, but now that my contract at IBM is over, I have a little spare time. That means not only redesigning this web site (yes, look for exciting new changes in the coming days and weeks) but also starting to write in this blog once again. I will make another effort at getting my presentation of roughly a year ago up online (and fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, it’s still just as valid today as it was then).

What you can’t see is that I have a new admin interface which I really, really like. It’s the Fluency Admin by Dean J, Robinson.Tell you what, I’ll put in a screenshot of the screen I’m writing this on:Fluent Admin looks cool, doesn't it?

UIs in the Movies


Forbidden Planet

A recent paper by Michael Schmitz, a student at Saarland University (a fascinating institution near the borders of Germany, France, Luxembourg and Belgium), surveys several different user interfaces from science fiction movies throughout film history. Human Computer Interaction in Science Fiction Movies cites several films, including Metropolis, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix, Logan’s Run, Forbidden Planet, Gattaca, Minority Report, Total Recall, Star Trek: The Next Generation (one of the movies, I assume), X-Men, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark Star, the 2002 remake of The Time Machine, and even Galaxy Quest.

It is intriguing the way Schmitz has organized the UIs he is taking note of:

The movie clips in the main section of his survey are categorized according to their area of real-life applications and research:
Neuro Technology: Technologies that connect to brains are introduced here.
Identification: Electronical identification of individuals
Displays: Various kinds of displays as an output medium
Speech: Including speech synthesis and recognition as well as intelligent assistants/avatars as special subgroup.
Other I/O technologies: All technologies that are more specialised and that were difficult to categorize according to the fields above, for example gesture recognition or tangible user interfaces

I think these categories arose because of the scenes that he chose to include. There are perhaps some other movies that were not chosen that may have brought in other areas of classification (for instance, Tron, Blade Runner, Serenity, any of the Star Wars films, The Fifth Element, Ghost in the Shell, any of the James Bond films, 12 Monkeys or Contact).

The fact is, the UIs that we often see in the movies are not always accurate because they aren’t necessarily built for good usability, but instead for good dramatic effect. Sure, Tom Cruise could have done some of his research in Minority Report using a mouse and an LCD screen, but it was so much more dramatic for him to don VR gloves, and perform the exhausting 3D manipulation in virtual space in front of him. Even everyday, mundane events like receiving an email get full-screen 3D animations in the movie Disclosure with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore in 1994.

Nevertheless, movies do have a way of placing imagery and expectations in the mind of many movie viewers. In fact, because a surprisingly large number of people can’t tell the difference between movies and reality, some of these UI inventions may be adopted sooner after they are developed for real, everyday use. What James Bond sees on his computer screen may very well be built by some small startup determined to bring just such a tool to market, at whatever price the public wants to pay. They know they want it, though, because they saw it work just fine at the theatre.

Design Gems from Moscow (with love?)

Through the usual way that one stumbles upon something on the Internet (by…stumbling upon it), I found the web site of the Art Lebedev studio, who have become known because of a breakthrough keyboard that has been talked about (and wished for) for quite some time. The keyboard has struck a chord (pun intended) with a lot of geeks, because it’s one of those ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ kind of products. Each key is an LCD, and can be programmed to both display a different character and type that character (or perform that function) when pressed. Here’s what that could mean:

Set for English: (lower case)

Optimus Keyboard set for English

Those same keys set for Photoshop:

Set for Photoshop

Wait, what it if was set for the game Quake?

Set for Quake

On top of this extraordinary keyboard, there is also a brilliant, if less ergonomically spot-on mouse:

The Mus 2 Mouse from Lebedev Studios

In addition to these bits of Industrial design (and geek fancy-tickling), Mr. Lebedev, who along with his studio, is in Moscow, also writes a sort of blog, although it is not an RSS feed (but I wish he would make it so) called Mandership. According to Mr. Lebedev, it’s been a project since 1997 (which would account for it’s pre-RSS structure). I also notice that the most recent entry is in 2006. I hope he does another few this year. Nearly all of the posts I read were gems of clear thinking about design, the way the world works, and the way people think. No wonder he and his compatriots at his studio keep coming up with such brilliant products, even if some of them are harder to bring out of the concept stage.

How Small is Too Small?

As I started to customize different WordPress Themes for this blog, I found myself at one point editing some icons: the ones that appear next to the date () and author (). These icons are 9 by 9 pixels, which is probably the smallest graphic that I’ve ever edited in a UI, at least something that was not connected to anything else (like the corner of a window or curve in a box). These icons are not really much more than a decoration, and frankly, I’m somewhat on the fence about them. They do draw the eye to the date and author, but I’m not sure that’s either a good thing in this case (since the author, 99% of the time will be the same) and because they do add a bit of clutter. Since they are so small, they are not clickable (nor should they be). Perhaps the might be useful as the holder of more information, like the date and time. This would be information that is not necessarily helpful to see all the time, but in those cases where it would be helpful to mouse over the object and get more information, such a small element might be handy. In that case, mouseable (as opposed to clickable) might not be a bad idea.

I thought that 9 by 9 might be the limit for icon size, and that this was so small that one colour (or black and white) might also be a rule. Although they are slightly larger at 16 by 16, the free set of icons from FamFamFam called “Silk Icons” are actually in colour. There are 700 of them and many of them are quite good. Let’s hope that a lot of people use them, as they provide some good examples of good icons on the net. I’m particularly impressed with clock and table edit .

Nevertheless, I believe that when you get below 16 by 16, an interface element probably is for display only. The only exception might be the arrows you see on heirarchical menus, and even then it’s connected to a much larger item (the menu).

Update: My friend Jan has noted that these icons show up as not much more than ‘dots’ on his high-resolution laptop screen. I forgot to take into account that as screen resoloutions go up (and more devices are miniaturized), one has to take this into account. So, I’m thinking that these days the smallest one can get in a UI element is probably closer to the teens or near 20 pixels for any sort of meaningful information. Unless you consider a dot meaningful, which it is at the ending of a sentence, like this one.