Prepare for hyperconnectivity

01 Apr 2008 | News
Computers have transformed our working lives. Now as they become pervasive elsewhere, leading experts call for an overhaul of research in human–computer interaction.

Image courtesy Microsoft Corp.

Hyperconnectivity and new computer interfaces have blurred the line between work and personal space. Huge storage capabilities raise fundamental privacy issues about what should and what should not be recorded. Computers increasingly make decisions on our behalf.

And now one of the most intimate human experiences – the kiss – has been digitised and can be delivered remotely.

High time, say the experts, to look again at the discipline of human computer interaction (HCI) and reshape and update research and design in the field. The goal is to find ways HCI can make a stronger, more positive impact on the relationship between people and technology at a personal, interpersonal and societal level.

Their suggestions for doing this are outlined in a report, “Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the Year 2020”, published this week, which explores new technologies, examines their potential impact, and makes recommendations to ensure the increasing influence of the computer is a positive one.

The report represents the conclusions of 45 leading HCI specialists from around the world who met in March 2007 to consider the question, “What will human–computer interaction look like in the year 2020?”

“Computers have shaped so many aspects of the modern world that we wanted to explore how today’s emerging technologies might shape our lives in 2020,” said Abigail Sellen, senior researcher at Microsoft, and one of the editors of the report.

“Computing has the potential to enhance the lives of billions of people around the world. We believe that if technology is to truly bring benefit to humanity, then human values and the impact of technology must be considered at the earliest possible opportunity in the technology design process.”

The next 12 years are expected to deliver advances in interfaces, such as surfaces that allow fingertip control of on-screen objects, devices that can sense and react to movement and other techniques of controlling computers to supplement the keyboard and mouse.

Display technologies will make it possible to embed screens of all sizes in a variety of fabrics and paper-like digital screens will be used to distribute content.

A complex ecosystem

Tom Rodden, professor of interactive systems at Nottingham University, says the interaction between humans and computers is evolving into a complex ecosystem where small changes can have far-reaching consequences. “It is imperative we combine technological innovations with an understanding of their impact on people.”

Without proper oversight it is possible that we — both individually and collectively — may no longer be in control of ourselves or the world around us.

This potentially places the computer on a collision course with basic human values and concepts such as personal space, society, identity, independence, perception, intelligence and privacy. These are questions HCI needs to consider now.

The report makes seven recommendations to ensure HCI research and design incorporates appropriate human values.

“This […] will help us to decide collectively when, how, why and where technology impacts upon humanity, rather than reacting to unforeseen change,” Sellen concluded.

“The final recommendation is something towards which we should all aspire: by 2020 HCI will be able to design for and support differences in human value, irrespective of the economic means of those seeking those values. In this way, the future can be different and diverse because people want it to be.”

Before that can happen it will be necessary to update research and design methods in HCI, exploring new ways of understanding users. Over the last decade techniques rooted in design-based practices (such as cultural probes) have come to prominence. These have complemented existing techniques of understanding that have emerged from scientific and engineering traditions – human factors and cognitive science, for instance.

Other ways of extending and complementing existing techniques will be required beyond design; these may include views from more diverse disciplines and cultural traditions.

The design and building of prototypes of new devices needs to be undertaken in ways that are directed at particular kinds of user value. These should complement and extend existing techniques, which emphasise usability and closeness of fit between prototyped and engineered solutions.

In the future, more lightweight, rapid prototyping and design iteration processes will be required. New prototyping tools and technologies will be especially important, allowing the rapid and easy assembly of novel hardware and software to be tested alongside and within everyday artefacts and living spaces.

Reconsider how HCI evaluates digital technologies

HCI needs to be sensitive to a shift away from the world of work, with its emphasis on productivity and efficiency, towards considerations of leisure and entertainment, and aesthetic and cultural value systems.

Work will continue to be important, of course, but what is good in one domain may not apply in another. The contrast is not between efficiency at work and idleness at home, it is between productivity and efficiency as one very limited set of criteria for designing suitable interfaces.

The broadening and diversification of digital technologies means that HCI also needs to collaborate more with other research communities, including architects, urban designers, economists and ethicists, to name but a few. HCI researchers need to know how to converse with disciplines with very different traditions.

The changes that are wrought by pervasive computing are diverse and far-reaching, and understanding and analysing the implications should become part of the school curriculum.

Teaching the practical skills of computing is one thing, and important in itself. But learning to use a word processor or spreadsheet imparts nothing of the impact of computing in society.

There is a need also for more advanced training for future HCI researchers argues the report, saying, “It is imperative that HCI considers how it might scale-up its educational processes to develop a generation of researchers and practitioners that can comfortably engage with the broad set of disciplines outlined.”

In addition to increased support for training and the production of PhDs, this will require HCI to revisit its curriculum. HCI students need to be capable of using new, lightweight prototyping and coding tools. They require greater methodological adroitness in choosing the right investigative techniques, and they need to be able to communicate to those outside of the discipline on matters that might be of crucial importance to other professions.

HCI specialists also need to become more engaged in the process of framing government regulation and policy. So far this has been done in a limited way, for example in the area of the ‘digital divide’ or in an advisory role in issues to do with trust and security in computer systems.

The emphasis has often been on technical issues or economics, and not on the wider problems and possibilities of interaction. HCI should not confine itself to the problems of ensuring usability, or in dealing with computer security issues. Rather, it should act in a wider advisory or steering role to help deals with the consequences of the complex and diverse transformations that new forms of interaction with computers will unleash.

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