Kevin Cheng  

Lincoln Laboratories: How Technical Constraints Aren’t Holding Us Back

June 14th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

During this year’s CHI conference, Bill Buxton organized a panel at CHI to present the work of a group he felt pioneered much of what we work on. [The MIT Lincoln Laboratories][1]. Bill’s site explains the background of the group and the individual accomplishments of those involved far better than I could here so I encourage you to check it out.

What I’d like to talk about, though, is how that panel made me feel at the end of it. Several demonstrations in particular struck out at me and humbled me. Humbled and to some extent, humiliated. I’ll talk about a few of the demos, videotaped in the 60s at the lab to illustrate why.

Many readers are familiar with Macromedia Flash and how powerful its tweening function is. I’m not an expert on Flash but I’ve gone through the basic tutorial where it shows how you can draw a path, and any object can be animated to follow this path, with the option to orient itself towards the path at all times or maintain a particular orientation. Very powerful, simple, and elegant tool for implementing simple animations.

In the Lincoln Labs demo, a video showed how for one particular pen based interaction project, a user could draw the path with the pen and it would animate that path. What was particularly innovative was that it also remembered the dynamics of the drawing. For example, if the user drew an inward spiral and sped up the drawing rate as he or she approached the center, the program would remember and animate that acceleration as well. I wish I had the video to show but it’s not yet online. Perhaps it’s also possible to do in Flash but certainly not with such intuitive interaction.

Another video showed how the pen based interaction could be used to define commands. Basically, this was one of the first looks into gestured interaction. The program permitted the user to define any gesture they wanted, and it could be mapped to whatever keyboard command desired. Just draw the gesture you wanted to program and punch in the command one wishes to associate with it. I sat there, watching the presentation on my second generation tablet PC which has a program that limits you to choosing from their preset gestures and can’t let me program the gestures to ctrl-modified commands such as the all important ctrl-z undo. All that, and the program fit in under 200 bytes. Not 200kb, not 200mb, _200 bytes_.

These demonstrations led me to one simple conclusion. While technology is still developing in all sorts of domains, we’re not anywhere near effectively using the technology that’s available to us now. The level of technology is improving at a far faster rate than that of which we are innovating in HCI. Part of this, of course, is because we work with people and people need to adjust to change but can we really say we’re pushing boundaries?

A great current example is the wave of Ajax applications and sites that are so popular now. As many have pointed out, the terminology may be new but the capabilities have been around for years. Browser support may be more than what it used to be but the level of hacking and workarounds is still quite high for developing really rich applications so we can’t even say “well the newer browsers are better”. The fact is, it took a few companies to be willing to take this technology and run with it; in particular Google with Maps and GMail and Flickr (or Yahoo now).

Technical constraints are not the limiting factor. Designers need to explore beyond what they believe to be the current constraints. Businesses need to be willing to invest the time and resources to really build something that leap frogs others instead of rehashing the old. And programmers? They just need the time and the reason to do it and you can see the magic happen.

There are a lot of constraints to consider when building a design. Don’t let your own preconceived notions be one of them.

[1]: “MIT Lincoln Laboratories”

2 Responses to “Lincoln Laboratories: How Technical Constraints Aren’t Holding Us Back”
David Heller wrote:

Hi Kevin,

Great article … thank you for putting this important message out there.

The biggest constraints that I see in my day-to-day life is not necessarily technology alone, but rather, legacy integration. Legacy is not only technological, but also cultural. Most users are scared of things that are too new and unfamiliar. The success of iTunes, is dramatic mainly b/c it was successful despite being new. This is tremendous innovation and also tremenedous risk. Risk management might be considered a constraint variable. How much risk are you willing to take as a business?

I do think it is our responsibility to push, pull, prod, and otherwise convince our peers that it is all worth it. I also agree w/ your point of view that many of us are not exploring options outside of the box inside of practice for sure. I do think that managed risk though is really a key constraint that not just designers work in, but most anyone doing business of any kind.

Robby Slaughter wrote:

I disagree that the biggest problem is legacy integration. For me, the biggest problem is that organizations and decision makers have little interest, and sometimes little respect, for the difficulty of good design. We are so shortsighted about “getting products out the door” that we have created a technologically complex world which is nonetheless almost unusable. I’m amazed we’ve made as much progress as we have.

One day, computers will *really* work. :-)

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?