The future of interactive design has been with us since 1888, the date that liquid crystals were discovered by Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer. But it seems that, despite the proliferation of LCD watches, mobile phones, PDAs, laptops and screens of all description, designers remain as unaware of the true potential of this technology as was Reinitzer in that distant age. One man has seen the future, and he says it’s close… and that designers of all disciplines ought to steel themselves for a journey into unchartered territory.
Bill Buxton is principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and is a designer concerned with the human aspects of technology. He is the world’s foremost expert on human-computer interaction (HCI), and his work explores the use of technology to support creative activities such as design, filmmaking and music.
Buxton says LCD technology is following the same story arc as broadband. “[MIT Media Lab Chairman] Nick Negroponte was one of the first people to say bandwidth is going to be essentially free,” says Buxton. “He told us to get over it, and start thinking about what it means in terms of how we deal with machines. No-one believed him.
“What I believe is that within a very short period of time, screen real-estate is going to be free. High quality, dynamic displays are not going to be precious, nor valuable – you won’t have to be guarding consoles with your life. We’ll be treating them as casually as we do paper today, as just another cheap medium of display. For more than five years at my local cinema in Toronto, big plasma panels have replaced the paper movie posters. At a time when plasma panels cost almost £10,000 they were already replacing pieces of paper in a commercial venture. That’s pretty amazing.”
He adds: “What’ll start to happen is they’ll also become interactive; they’ll be where you can buy your ticket – and you won’t have to queue, even if there are others looking to buy tickets, because you’ll use your mobile to interact with it.”
Buxton believes that large LCD displays will soon cost “about $1-10 per square foot for 100dpi” and that “they’re going to be all over within the next four years”.
“I have no doubt that when you’re waiting for the bus in the morning, the poster on the bus shelter will be electronic,” says Buxton – who believes the challenge for designers will be crafting not the content but the “experience”. “Anyone who thinks the point of design is the thing in the box, the thing on the page or the thing on the screen is missing the point. It’s the experience that this engenders that’s important.”
He adds: “You have to offer me an experience that makes me want to rest my eyes on that surface – a surface that’s owned by the advertiser, and yet that at the same time must suit everybody’s purpose.”
Buxton’s vision? An interactive bus shelter LCD panel that allows queuing commuters to play a networked video game via their mobile phone. “There will be advertising,” stresses Buxton, “but it can’t be crude like a pop-up, but rather something like a watermark across the screen. Without careful design they’re just going to be big presentations as opposed to being interactive services.”
But it won’t just be bus shelters and cinemas playing host to this interactive revolution – it will be everywhere, from signage to home entertainment. “Tomorrow, the diversity of the web experience will match the diversity of paper. Think of how many ways you interact with paper in the course of a day – the context and purpose of it, and the experience. That’s how rich it’s going to be with interactivity.”
Buxton – a former consulting research scientist with Xerox PARC, the legendary research establishment that helped give us GUIs and mice – believes the implications of this for designers are profound.
“The point that confronts the designer is that there’s nothing in our training that’s prepared us for dealing with the types of situations and types of devices and services and transactions that we’re starting to be asked to design for.”
He contends that the current state of interaction design mirrors that of industrial design in the early part of the twentieth century. “In North America and elsewhere industrial design just happened. Between 1927 and 1929, all of a sudden you had people starting to set up firms to do industrial design, but there were no industrial design schools or qualifications. All of that came later.”
He adds: “The people in graphic design are typically not trained in animation, and yet in some sense the skills required are becoming more and more akin to what you’d expect of a game designer, rather than a graphic designer. Also, the people who have the software skills are not going to be successful because they don’t have the design skills.
“What I see happening in terms of interaction design is that the skills that are required to do a really good job of it are beyond any single discipline. Interdisciplinarity always was an important issue, but now it’s absolutely essential.”
He continues: “It’s like the relationship between a structural engineer and an architect: the more you’re pushing the envelope on your building the earlier you need the structural engineer involved to help you understand what’s possible, but also because it may help you extend the design, and allow you to do things you didn’t know could be done.”
One other area Buxton sees as being key in interaction design is smaller, brighter and cheaper data projectors. “The technology in supermarket barcode scanners is being transformed to create miniature high-resolution colour laser projectors the size of a fingertip. In the subways of Vienna and Stockholm they are already using video projectors to replace paper-based advertising. But they’re not interactive – they’re just playing CNN, because no one has figured out yet that this isn’t television, but a whole new advertising and presentation medium. It can be interactive, and can give you an experience and be engaging, but they’re not yet.”
A dead botanist and supermarket checkouts. Hardly the stuff of crystal balls, is it? “The future has always been with us,” explains Buxton. “The trick is learning how to spot it.”