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Special- versus General-Purpose Devices

November 14, 2011

Bret Victor’s fun rant about the future of interaction design has been making it’s way around Twitter, Google+, email, and other communication tools. While the rant is quite enjoyable, I have to confess that I find that the glee some people seem to take in forwarding it a little strange. Particularly since they all seem to pull out this quote:

Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?

Oooh, snap! Take that Pictures Under Glass! You’ve been served, smartphones and tablets! You’re thoroughly mediocre devices! Never mind the millions sold and billions earned!

Bret’s point, that we shouldn’t limit our visions of the future to what we have now, is entirely valid. And yes, we should absolutely consider the capabilities of humans when designing future interfaces. But there are problems with some of the interfaces that Bret poses as alternatives. That hammer? Great at hammering stuff. Need to cut something in two? Ummm…

A key issue is whether a device (or tool) is specific to a particular task or general-purpose. Tablets and smartphones (and desktop and laptop PCs) are general-purpose devices: they’re good at a very large variety of tasks, but not necessarily great at any of them. Many research projects on tangible interaction (one of the alternate research streams Bret points to) may be better for a specific task (or a small set of tasks), but they’re usually worse than the general-purpose devices for anything else.

In the end whether general-purpose or special-purpose devices succeed depends a lot on the economics involved. Sometimes special-purpose devices succeed over general-purpose devices because they’re so much better at the task than general-purpose devices and because people really want to perform the relevant tasks. So cameras, media players, and e-book readers all succeeded as special-purpose hardware devices with non-Pictures Under Glass interfaces. But sometimes the general-purpose devices catch up: look at what’s happened with Apple’s iPods now that the iPhone is in the picture. And I suspect that sales of low-to-medium-end cameras are nose-diving as smartphones increasingly offer better integrated cameras.

So yes, we should consider a broad spectrum of possible technology futures and not focus just on Pictures Under Glass. But be careful about knocking Pictures Under Glass just because they only support a subset of possible interactions.

Oh, and I should note that I’m not terribly impressed by Microsoft’s “Productivity Future Vision” video either. But for a different reason: I don’t think they thought through whether the interactions they show would actually work in practice.

And a further note: I’m actually a big fan of Bret’s work. Some of his Kill Math projects are super awesome. I particularly like his recent essay Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction. I wish conference papers were as interactive and compelling!

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