Despite the development of different sensors, most of the interfaces are still graphic-based, favoring sight above all other senses. To switch on or off a smart bulb, change a song in a music streaming app or text a friend, a smartphone requires from its user a full visual attention. Is there a chance for a change in user interface design in the next decade?
About the (not very distant) future of user interface design, I talked to Tobias Eichenwald, CEO and co-founder of Senic, a hardware and software start-up based in Berlin. He and his team are focused on exploring and designing new ways for a human to interact with technology, with a goal of making the user experience seamless and natural, beyond limited screen-based user interface. We met at the venue of DMY 2015 festival.
At what stage of evolution of user interface design are we right now?
Tobias Eichenwald: When we look at the past of UI, we can see two major shifts. The first was the emergence of personal computers in the 1980s. The second refers to smartphones in the 2000s. After digitizing our work tools, communication and entertainment, we are right now in the middle of a process of transferring physical objects such as light and speaker switches onto mobile apps. In the result, people spend more and more time staring at smartphones screens. But let’s be honest: nobody enjoys browsing through mobile apps to turn on a light. A smartphone interface required several steps for this kind of operation. It includes finding and pulling out a smartphone, unlocking it, searching for the right app and opening it to select the right setting. This process is time-consuming. It is a step in the wrong direction, comparing to a user flow of a traditional light switch. Please note that in real life, a home is a place for everyone, not just for 20 or 30 years old digital natives.
Try to hit a button on your smartphone with your eyes closed – it will not work. Design in a post-screen era will focus on an interaction very similar to that with low-tech objects.
How do we have to wait for the third shift in user interface design?
The next shift from a centralized graphical user interface that deals only with a vision to ubiquitous and specialized user interfaces is just around the corner. Within the next 15 years, we will not use just one centralized device such as a smartphone. Instead, we will use a combination of many interfaces, for example, a speech recognition, gesture recognition, wearables and haptics. One technology will replace the other. We will use different interfaces in different situations. For example, of I want to get information about a product when I am alone in a room, I can use voice recognition. But if I am talking to someone at a table, and I want to adjust the music volume, I would prefer to use haptic technology that I can reach blindly and discretely without interrupting our talk.
Something like Nuimo, the first product from Senic?
Exactly. Nuimo is a freely programmable controller for a computer and mobile devices. It connects directly to anything that speaks Bluetooth Low Energy.
Nuimo is the first product in an entire line of interfaces, smart surfaces and objects from Senic, which will include collaborations with major companies in the automotive and furniture industries.
How a user can interact with the device?
Four main inputs include an analog ring that runs around the circumference of Nuimo, capacitive touch and click on the face of the device, as well as two gesture sensors that allow a sweep motion over the device or upwards from the face of the device. It also includes a LED matrix that shows simple graphics through the surface. It can be used as a visual output and signifier for switching applications.
Which apps are supported?
Nuimo works with Sonos Speakers and Philips Hue Lights, apps such as Soundcloud, Spotify, and many more.
Currently, Nuimo has more that 30 applications and integrations available – a number that is growing thanks to a committed developer community. Nuimo is freely programmable, and building applications for the controller is simple. New apps can be updated through a smartphone or a computer. It is also possible to reconfigure the controls of the Nuimo to suit interests of its user.
Can I use Nuimo with more than one app at the same time?
Different applications can be loaded into the controller and switched between with a simple swipe motion. This makes it easy to switch between playing music and controlling the lighting at home or visualizing a timer application for cooking.
How did you manage to change an idea into a real product?
Firstly, we completed a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. At that time, we focused on integrations for computer applications. The campaign reached its funding goal in three days and went on to be funded over 500 percent reaching $280K in total. The second campaign conducted on Kickstarter was focused on integration Nuimo with smart home objects. The controller reached 100 percent of its funding goal in just 32 hours. The goal was €55K, but at the end we reached as much as €210K.
It sounds like a huge success.
It is just the beginning. Nuimo is the first product in an entire line of interfaces, smart surfaces and objects from Senic, which will include collaborations with major companies in the automotive and furniture industries.
Ten characteristics of a new generation of user interfaces (based on the article „The Future of Human Computer Interaction” published on the official Senic blog):
1. Decentralized. UI will shift away from the centralized devices such as smartphones. The light switch shifted onto the smartphone and will shift away again into smart light switches, speech or completely new forms like eye tracking. You won’t need to carry your interface around anymore. Interfaces will be where you need them to be.
2. Specific. Interfaces will shift away from a generic screen towards more specific interfaces that only do a small number of things and that are specifically designed for that use case.
3. Human-centered. Graphical user interfaces only use the visual sense and a reduced version of haptics. Future interfaces will integrate more human senses. Interfaces will use our brain waves or body movements.
4. Instant. Dealing with menus will be obsolete. Things will be instant again. The question is not whether actions take 1, 3 or 5 steps. The question will be if an action can be done instantly or not.
5. Simple. Future interfaces will ignore the assumed integration with graphical user interfaces and will focus on making things easier than existing solutions.
6. Invisible. Technology will not be in the foreground anymore. It will blend into the background. It will disappear into walls, tables, micro projectors or glass.
7. Augmented and virtual. The digital and physical will blend. You will be able to read context information about a broken motor not through a phone but directly in the surrounding space of the object.
8. Passive. You won’t need to trigger every action manually anymore, sensors will do that job for you. Examples include a garage door that can track when you’re getting close to your house or lights that turn on automatically when you’re walking into a room.
9. Tangible. A race driver would never replace his physical wheel for a tablet. A musician would never replace his guitar. Haptic and tangible interfaces have value. They allow you to use your motoric memory and a multitude of senses and to interact with technology in the most natural way.
10. Magical. We will be able to talk to rooms and machines in natural language. We will be able to make gestures in the air to trigger actions. We will only have to think of things to happen and they will.
The final prototypes of Nuimo, right before the start of mass manufacturing, will be shown at IFA fairs in Berlin from 4th to 9th of September. If you have any questions concerning Nuimo and you will be in Berlin at this time, you are more than welcome to visit the Senic’s booth at the fairs (Messe Berlin, hall 11.1, booth 11 b). Naturally, you can always reach the Senic team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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