Sunday, December 19, 2004

What are you getting for Xmas?

Checking out the big sellers at Xmas can give us a good idea of the current and emerging tech trends. This year the big sellers are MP3 players (no surprise), PlayStation 2 (because of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) and, bit of an odd one here, a farting robot. The 'bot in question is the entertaining and incredibly well built RoboSapien - which is a toy built for hacking if ever there was one. it comes with an infra red remote that can easily be emulated by other IR devices, and if you take the back off you can hook directly into the thing's innards and run it with an iPaq on its back. but best of all, it seems nearly indestructible, all for a snip at around £60. is this how robots will end up in our homes? not through large scale, industrial efforts, but through small, cheap, toy-based products? Puts me in mind of an Asimov story describing the efforts of US Robots to make their products more acceptable to the general public by making them less human-like and hence less threatening...

At the other end of the spectrum, check out Honda's running robot. This 'chap' has been strolling for a few years, but he can now manage a leisurely jog. Impressive stuff. Note that they didn't set out to make a robot that runs like a person, just a robot that runs, but it really does like there's a person inside that suit...

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Slanty design

Just learnt a new term, "slanty design", mentioned in a couple of places (mainly here). A slanty design is one that has some built-in lack of usability or functionality to prevent irresponsible use. the examples you'll find in the links are literally slanty surfaces that prevent anyone putting coffee cups on them (for good reasons). I guess what this reminded me of is that good design is not just about usability - there are a whole host of requirements to consider, from both the provider and consumer. Consumers may well want to put coffee cups anywhere they want, but there may be good reasons why they shouldn't. Don Norman talks about 'forcing functions', and 'constraints' which I guess are similar, but for some reason 'slanty' just seems to say it a lot better.the other issue I've been thinking about recently is how design needs are not static, but in fact they change over time and depending on context.

I found this quote from Douglas Engelbart, an often unsung hero from the early days of HCI:

"If ease of use was the only valid criterion, people would stick to tricycles and never try bicycles"

hopefully the point is clear: tricycles are easier to use because, well, they're easier to use, but they're no good for certain contexts of use, like Himalayan mountain biking, or stunt riding, I imagine. so just making things as easy to use as possible isn't the whole story - we also need to think about how, where, and why people want to use things, and design accordingly. that might mean some compromises in overall 'usability' (like a 2 wheeled bike compared to a 3 wheeler) but the gains will come from supporting more flexible use.

my feeling is that as we move towards more mobile embedded systems, the usability of a system will have to become more flexible, adding & removing functionalities depending on how and where it is being used. we see this already in cut down versions of software, such as Word & Excel, that offer only basic functionalities on a handheld device. but my feeling is that there a deeper level of dynamic usability that we can use, such as a service that can explicitly give us the choice between longer waiting times or more editing features. thinking about distributed computing, where applications are accessed as web services, this kind of flexible design really starts to look important.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Fighting spam... with spam

I love the idea, but I was worried it might work a bit too well, and cause a backlash. And it has. Lycos' new screensaver lets you put your idle PC to good use, sending endless requests to identified spam sites, using up their bandwidth and eventually knocking them offline. It's a great strategy, and has worked too well for some, with Lycos now coming under fire for distributing what many see as a tool for launching denial of service attacks.

But I'll wager this won't be the last time we'll see a tool like this, and in fact I wonder if this kind of 'active' security could be applied to viruses and suchlike, and not just spam. instead of waiting to be attacked, and then trying to do something about it, we might have specifically designed agents to patrol our networks, in search of any suspicious behaviour. I'd welcome anything that makes viruses and spam less likely to reach my machine, but some caution is advised. the point has already been made that it's all too easy for a typo or other error to list a legitimate site as a spammer...

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