Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Whence UI Innovations?

I want to know when there's going to be some change in the standard graphics user interface. I am as big a fan of Alan Kay as anyone, but seriously, when he helped come up with the Windows-Icons-Menus-Pointer interface, Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense and Dick Cheney was in the White House. Uhh... you know what I mean. This was when machines ran at single-digits of Megahertz. Remember Megahertz? And they had Kilobytes of memory, and probably didn't have a hard drive. So why are we still using it? Yeah, we've got color, and spiffy pseudo-3D effects, and kind of cool roll-over glowing effects, but it's still the same metaphor, it's still the same toolset, and it's still the same basic idea.

For years, people have been saying that games are going to be a source of GUI innovation, presumably because there's so much competition in the gaming arena that there's no standard, and there's a lot of experimentation. Well, for one I haven't seen any cosmically different interfaces in games, and two and more importantly, I can't identify a single instance of a game-originating UI element that made it to the mainstream. (Though there was that Doom interface where you could kill processes.) This is not to say that there haven't been some excellent game UIs, and of course the PlayStation II and its ilk have given us a great deal of innovation in terms of the handheld controller (who could imagine two hands at once? Oh yeah, Doug Englebart did, thirty years ago).

And don't get me started on crappy handset UIs, especially phones.

I do have hope, though. The coming generation of cheap displays are going to plaster computer-driven images everywhere, especially in cars. And there's not a lot of real-estate left on the car dashboard, except...

Yeah, that's right. The windshield. Fighter pilots have been using heads-up displays for years. (Well, at least the F-15 simulator I used to play did. I assume the real thing did do, but I've never flown the real thing.) I think that passenger cars will have HUDs soon, and that means that we're going to need to develop a standard set of widgets, toolsets, metaphors, and conventions for displaying, manipulating, and interpreting overlay images.

The important part of this is transparency. I was excited to hear that Apple was introducing semitransparency for Aqua, but so far all I can tell is that's it's a special effect. Nice, but only a baby step. I want to see layers of information superimposed on reality.

And you know, it would make a great game interface.