March 21, 2008

Article at CNN

Better technology by design

Comfortable? Probably not if you're reading this online, in which case your back, shoulders, or eyes might be straining a bit -- or will be soon. The good news: designers are getting better at adjusting technology to our bodies and the way we behave.

You could, for instance, be getting your news on Kindle, an electronic reading device released by Amazon late last year. Lightweight and glare-free, it aims to feel as easy as reading a paperback. Based on early responses, it succeeds.

Meanwhile old tech standbys like the stylus, mouse and joystick look increasingly antiquated with the emergence of recent devices. Take the iPhone, released last year by Apple.

A popular feature is the way it lets you move screens with your finger, or zoom in with a pinch-and-expand gesture. Who needs a stylus? (Similar features have been added to the trackpads of some Apple laptops).

The upcoming Microsoft Surface lets you slide digital photos around on a tabletop screen, much as you would on a regular tabletop. You can enlarge photos, too, by dragging on their corners with your fingers. It certainly looks more natural -- and fun -- than using a mouse.

Nintendo's Wii gaming console, meanwhile, lets you swing a baseball bat onscreen by swinging the wireless remote control through the air. Nudge a joystick instead? No thanks. Of course design evolution is nothing new. Everyday products have been shaped by centuries of it.

An evolutionary approach

"Cameras are designed a certain way because 100-plus years have taught us how to design them," notes Ken Dulaney, an analyst with research firm Gartner.

But computers, cellphones, digital assistants, game consoles and the like have been given relatively little design attention and have had less time to evolve. This is partly explained by the rapid pace of change in the high-tech arena.

"Rushed-out technology tends to pay little heed to the user," notes David Humphries, head of insight at Innovaro, an innovation strategy consultancy.

There are plenty of unfortunate examples. Good design, he says, "cares" -- and makes the learning process intuitive. Design-driven hits like the iPod have demonstrated the commercial value of "caring" about the user experience.

"Attention-grabbing interface features like iPhone's swipe gestures and Wii's motion-sensing Wiimote turn consumer heads better than any marketing tag line ever could," says Kirk Olson, a consumer strategist at consultancy Iconoculture.

That's prompting manufacturers to work "harder to differentiate their products upfront during the development phase," he adds.

Meanwhile various advances like smaller components and increased storage capacity have made it easier for designers to realize their visions. But there's still plenty of room for improvement, suggests Humphries.

The rarely achieved ideal, he says, is that the device becomes "invisible" to the user and allows unrestricted, natural activity.

Smart clothes

Designers are finding other ways to adapt technology to our behavior. We usually wear clothing and carry things around, for instance, so designers are finding ways to piggyback on that.

Backpacks and jackets have solar panels built in, or buttons for controlling gadgets. Italian fashion designer Ermenegildo Zegna offers several stylish jackets along these lines.

The tiny VholdR camcorder from Twenty20 attaches to ski goggles or a bicycle helmet to help you record your exploits as you barrel down a mountainside.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, meanwhile, have developed a prototype knee brace that captures energy from your movements, so that it can charge gadgets like cellphones.

D-Rev, a new organization focused on boosting Third World incomes through smart design, is developing a small, powerful generator fueled by bicycling. The peddler, the idea goes, can run a cellphone-charging business while going about other tasks.

But whether it's tiny generators or the iPhone's touch screen, designers increasingly are finding ways to adapt technology to our bodies and behavior. The upshot for us, fortunately, is a more natural experience. And less back strain.