SIGGRAPH 2001 - is experimentation really dangerous?
August 17, 2001
Checked out SIGGRAPH yesterday. While the exhibition (trade show) was a predictable collection of tool vendors for digital video and the latest, greatest 3D rendering, no one was really able to answer the question: so when you can do photo realistic rendering that's indistinguishable from reality, then what?

In contrast one of the most beautiful pieces in the Art Gallery was Alpha Wolf, where people play the part of a wolf cub in a virtual pack, howling, growling or whimpering into microphone to influence their cub. Instead of trying to create photo realistic wolves, the Alpha Wolf team instead choose a style reminiscent of Chinese watercolor painting, and the results were much more evocative. Alpha Wolf was one of a several projects that tried to get rid of the mouse [free for a few days, then-pay per-view].

Most of these experimental ideas were pretty wild and destined to fail—and predictably were lambasted in the article by Jakob Nielsen. It is interesting though that the Times bothered to call a usability expert about this, a sign that people are thinking about ease-of-use, but it would've been nice to have talked to someone who didn't have such an automatic kill-joy attitude. Nielsen even went as far as to say: "Breaking new ground for the sake of breaking new ground is dangerous." Come on…

While I agree with Nielsen that good solutions come from focusing on people's lives not cute ideas, there's also a need for people to experiment. Granted most of the examples were "cool" technologies in search of a solution—which is why most of them will fail—but they ideally spur some inspiration get you thinking in new ways. (And let's not forgot they were in the art gallery.) Not every web site or software needs to be purely functional and an interface where you howl at other wolves might be entirely appropriate as part of an interface for an immersive learning environment or a game.

And dare I say it, there might even be room for art. Altzero3 by squid s o u p is an intriguing online sound experience using lines of bubbles to represent sounds and musical structures. Omnipresence ver. 1 was a hypnotic sound installation in a room with 450 randomly ringing chimes that was quite soothing. Maybe Neilsen should spend some time in it and chill out a little… ::

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Your thoughts…

i think you answered your own question.

when we can create 3d rendered environments that are indistinguishable from reality, many more visual interfaces that are not "purely functional" will come along that will be not only appropriate, but downright incredible, for "immersive learning environments"

besides, why does anyone climb a moutain?

Ken Bryson @ 08.17.2001

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So, this guy named Jules Verne wasted everyone's time in 1873 by writing a book about the absolutely absurd concept that someone might travel to -- GET THIS! -- the moon!

I mean, what practical purpose does this have? For example, why would we need that much cheese????

Here's what I think: breaking new ground for the sake of breaking new ground is dangerous.

Wait -- I don't think that. I forgot -- that's someone else's thinking. :)

Jared

Jared Spool @ 08.17.2001

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Years ago when I was in gradual school, I heard an estimate that the lag time from basic research had been dropping though out this century and was no longer in excess of 50 years, but more like 20 (this was in oh, 1978 or 1979). I don't know what the lag time is now, but basic research is essential to progress. This kind of work is idea-centric and while the ideas often seem pretty weird to vocal "experts" asked to comment on them, the nature of predictions is hillariously inaacurate. Who needed telephones, horseless carriages, heavier than air flying machines, etc? It may be true that some of the current versions of these concepts will fail, but many of the concepts will eventually be realized. More funding for basic and applied research might actually help us through this economic slump. And it could be fun ...

Dave Miller @ 08.18.2001

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I'm pretty surprised at Jakob's take given his academic background. But I guess he has his disciples to support and dogma to propagate - heaven knows what would happen if he took a pragmatic stance ;)

Working in academia it's pure research that gets kudos, while applied research is seen as somehow contaminated/icky/second class citizens by many ivory tower folks...another way of talking about pure research - "breaking new ground for the sake of breaking new ground".

Funny the things that end up growing when we break new ground...

Jess @ 08.18.2001

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Come on, George, have you never been interviewed by a newspaper reporter? You know the deal, they never have room for elaborate long quotes in these types of overview stories.

My basic point was that it is dangerous to base research into the future of user interfaces on pure technology and build stuff just because you can build it. Better to base UI research on human needs, at least for the majority of research dollars.

Jakob Nielsen @ 08.18.2001

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Jakob, I definitely appreciate you taking the time to respond -- and Happy Birthday! While we may have disagreements, you've certainly raised awareness about the need for usability and I want to thank you for that. But that's why I was upset when I saw remarks that I see potentially shooting the usability profession in the foot.

Yes I have been interviewed by newspaper reporters (and I've also been one myself). And yes they will take the juiciest quotes out of long explanations. Which why I try to be careful with my wording when interviewed, unless I'm intentionally throwing out a piece of raw meat.

I think we both agree it's better to investigate the future of user interfaces from the viewpoint of solving user needs. I guess my sticking point is the word "dangerous" and the phrasing you used. I think the point could be made in the same way, by saying:

"While breaking new ground for sake of breaking new ground is fun for the technologists, a more appropriate way to research the future of user interfaces is to start from human needs."

Doesn't rule out the possibility that one of these wild ideas might prove to be useful, just let's people know that it's more experimentation for experimentation's sake.

george @ 08.20.2001

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Turns out it's actually not Jakob Nielsen's birthday. Don Norman explains the tale of
misunderstanding in an inter-connected world.

george @ 08.20.2001

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I would not call the motif of Alpha Wolf "Chinese watercolour." The screenshots look more like initial charcoal storyboard drawings used in Disney animation. The old program Sketcher by Fractal Design used to create beautiful drawings in that style.

Joe Clark @ 08.21.2001

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