Occam's Razor and UI Innovation
Our illustrious editor, Chris Adamson's blog on this years Java Posse Roundup gave me pause for thought recently. Chris outlined a session discussing the evolution of the user interface, or lack thereof, in which innovations like the Wii Remote got a mention.
I have to say, I've mixed feelings about Nintendo's latest console. While I recognise the innovation it brings, I don't see it as necessarily a catalyst for revitalising user/machine interaction. Indeed, if anything, it could herald a major step backwards.
Yes, I realise this is heresy! But just put down those pitchforks and burning torches for a moment, and hear me out...
For all the brouhaha caused by the Nintendo Wii prior and during its launch, for me its primary innovation had some stark limitations. The Wii Remote, with its capacity for tracking both motion and orientation, was certainly an impressive piece of hardware; however close inspection of the games used to build pre-launch Press hype reveals a distinct pattern.
Conference reports flaunted pictures of excited young gamers energetically playing Tennis, Tenpin Bowling, and Golf — what do these games have in common? Yes, they all major on waving one's arms about! What was less noticeably (or even absent) from the Wii's pre-launch hype were games like Soccer, motor sports and platformers (not even Nintendo's legendary Mario.) Very strange, that!
Yes, games like these have subsequently appeared on the Wii, and developers have tried their hardest to include motion input within their gameplay, but for the most part arm waving is a gimmick — indeed in the case of Soccer it's precisely what the game is not about! Waving a hand up and down to make Lara Croft jog to the top of a ladder brings the player no closer to a true tomb raiding experience than waggling a joystick brings them closer to running the 100m Sprint. Perhaps Nintendo should invent a giant remote controlled ball which chases players down stairs, and employ a band of spear-wielding Aztecs to wait outside their front door?
Not that I'm mocking the Wii — it has undoubtedly brought a much needed breath of fresh air to the console market. But for all its cleverness, arm waving aside, the device is at best a gimmick and at worst a step back from cohesive user interface design. The splash made by the Wii will no doubt inspire other device manufacturers to experiment with motion based input, and before long we'll be sending text messages with the flick of a wrist, or checking for Wifi hotspots by circling our PSPs over our head. But what benefit does this bring?
An example of innovation with more widespread application can be found in Apple's iPhone. While critics may point at the product's flaws (and admittedly it has a few), its touch screen interface can only be described as a simple idea, elegantly executed for maximum impact.
The innovation differences between the iPhone and the Wii betray the likely creative dynamics which birthed them. In the case of the Wii, Nintendo presumably were reaching for a fresh gimmick to set them apart from the "ramp up the CPU, increase the polygons" mindset of its rivals. In the case of the iPhone, Apple clearly sought to overcome the cumbersome user interfaces which held mobile applications back.
If one was being cruel it might be tempting to characterise Nintendo's approach as a solution in search of a problem. But this would be most unkind, as clearly Nintendo had identified a legitimate issue with traditional controllers — albeit one restricted to only a select band of games. But having alighted on its chosen 'gimmick' Nintendo then had to play it to the max — shoehorning arm waving into every game format (rumour has it they frown upon games not employing at least some measure of motion input.)
Both Apple and Nintendo used gimmickry to boost what were otherwise rather anemic products. In the UK, after an initial burst of excitement, the iPhone apparently ended a little shy of expectations; while in Japan some are suggesting the Wii's popularity may not last forever. Already the novelty of the Wii Remote seems to have worn off for some Nintendo fanboys, and the company is now looking to extend its range of ground-breaking input devices. By contrast, Apple's 'problems' likely stem from the weak functional spec of the actual device behind the gloss (coupled with network lock-in) rather than a limited novelty value for its touch screen interface.
Can't think of a pun for this bit
Sometimes an idea seems so novel, it is hard to prevent oneself from getting carried away. I can recall back in the mid-Nineties when VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) started to make an impact — today it's embarrassing to recall how many 'technology gurus' seriously predicted we'd be browsing the World Wide Web in 3D by now. Not just forward and back through a site, but up, down, left, right, in and out! Just imagine, instead of merely clicking a bookmark to be instantly transported to Java.net, you could instead guide your virtual avatar through a maze of corridors within a virtual library, to your own virtual bookcase, containing many virtual Java links...
Strangely the idea failed to take off! Hmm...
(Actually a good friend of mine — hello Martin! — participated in a project which involved navigating the web on a bicycle. Yep, a real bicycle, minus any wheels obviously. So now you know what universities do with your tax dollars!)
A few years ago I witnessed a demo of experimental software in which an on-screen avatar guided users though items on a restaurant menu, with simulated body language and speech. The excited young researchers extolled the virtues of avatar based interfaces; but what, I wondered, was wrong with traditional printed menus? Low tech perhaps, but the printed word is cheap, efficient (no batteries), robust (doesn't crash), random access, and entirely sympathetic with the way the human brain (once taught to read) takes in such information.
What the VRML web and the restaurant avatar demonstrate is the need to apply an Occam's razor approach to user interface innovation. (Occam's razor is a simple philosophical device which states, in effect, "the simplest solution to any problem always wins!")
When adding innovation one question should be repeatedly asked: why am I doing this?
Sure, I can hook a Wii Remote into my desktop app, but what added value does it give me? Why do I want a rumble pack in my mouse? Is it really easier to navigate the Windows Start menu via voice commands? (And when are those damn Aztecs going to go home?)
Yes, it may seem obvious, but it needs stating and re-stating, over and over and over! Because even skeptics like myself can get taken in by the thrill of a new gimmick. It's so tempting to see something like the Wii Remote and wish to find ways to include it in one's own software. But the urge should be resisted, because it is only by identifying and focusing on real problems (rather than gimmicks) that any real progress will be made.
Thank you for listening. You may now continue with the pitchforks and flaming torches... :)