Hot Topics in Information Design

I have accepted to work for the Information Design Journal as Special Interest Editor.

I want to think in the open about this:

What is a “hot topic” anyway?

In my view there are four criteria for any topic to be “hot”:

  1. the news value
  2. actuality
  3. amount of discussion in the community
  4. touching “high-level aspects”

The news value

The news value is a very hard to identify aspect. Some topics may be news to some and outdated to others. There is no “topic map” that shows the age of topics – hardly even an identified list yet (while there is a list of research fields and areas of expertise). So the news value pretty much comes down to a statistical evaluation of demand and interest in certain topics.


In contrast to news value the actuality can also be high for older topics that have regained some attention recently. It can also be interesting, because it is reflecting about new developments and “game changing” or disruptive topics.

Amount & intensity of discussion

To define “amount of discussion” one needs to look at two things: the quantity of participation (e.g. the postings in discussion forums and mailing lists) and the level of dissent above consensus. Both values are hard to track.

Touching high-level aspects

Any submission in the “hot topic” section should focus on the identification and reflection about the topic itself — and its location in the overall topology of topics. So the direction of a submission should be “looking from inside out” or trying to define a bird’s eye view onto the subject.

Possible candidates

I went through some monographs, magazines, conference sites and journals and tried to identify an initial list of hot topics. This list is nothing more than a starting point – a first step.

  • Multi-touch user interface design
  • Making sense of the mobile technology
  • Visualizing complex matters
  • Visualization as political propaganda
  • Open government
  • Aligning sound and visuals in UI
  • Improving public transport
  • Intercultural communication

More steps will follow and this list will change.

Do you think there is a “hot topic” not in this list? I am constantly collecting material — do not hesitate to e-Mail or twitter-message me.


(Via Dynamic Information Design Seminar Blog)

Minority Report science adviser and inventor John Underkoffler demos g-speak — the real-life version of the film’s eye-popping, tai chi-meets-cyberspace computer interface. Is this how tomorrow’s computers will be controlled?

G-Speak is a really interesting concept. Right now I do not feel it is where it should be to be adopted on a broader scale: You need a certain environment with at least 2-3 square meters of space in front of a quite large screen.

I wonder if Microsoft will offer a extension to its Project Natal sensor some day — so that voice commands, body language and hand gestures create an immersive UI.

I can imagine that one day displays will cover complete walls so that you get a pretty cave-like situation. It is maybe time for another Display seminar?

IA conference 2010

I am at the IA Konferenz 2010 in Cologne (my hometown). Would have been a crime to miss this conference here. Met James Kalbach , Søren MuusJason Hobbs (I owe him a written commentary to his talk) and others…

I need to write more but until I find the time to do that I suggest to look at the twitter tag feed #iak10.

Update: Presentation slides start to arrive on

Track 1 from IA Konferenz 2010


Björn Hartmann: Enlightened Trial and Error

Björn Hartmann (Stanford HCI Group) talks about the different prototyping tools he and his collaborators have built to address two research questions:

1) How can tools enable designers to create prototypes of ubiquitous computing interfaces?

2) How can design tools support the larger process of learning from these prototypes?

(Duration: 1 hour, 13 minutes; this is from Stanford’s HCI Seminar lecture series, February 2009; This is a more in-depth version of the talk Bjorn gave at Interaction 09)

When faces become hyperlinks

The algorithms for facial recognition have improved a lot in recent years. Here is a company showing a working prototype of a mobile app that recognizes faces and attaches links to social network layers to them:

The prototype was shown last year — but there was a live demo at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelone last week. Obviously the company that also created the service wants to turn this in to a real application.

The implications of this is shown in the video: when looked through the “eyes of the app” people virtually carry logos, brands, name tags and messages around.

Next generation of devices: Tablets

There have been many attempts to make a computer work from your pocket and without a keyboard. Apple is rumored to work on a tablet device. It has invented the Newton Message Pad over 15 years ago – which was a marvelous (but expensive) device at that time.

Microsoft is working on a new prototype that features a dual-screen called Courier. Here is a design mockup (published by Gizmodo) that shows how the device could look like:

Here is a discussion from TechViShow:

I’m am a little bit skeptical looking at the design mockup. And I think Microsoft should take a different course: finish the product in the lab and market it as “availbale now” instead of creating new vaporware.

GPS + Compass + Motion sensors = Augmented Reality

The new iPhone 3GS adds a compass to the set of sensors. Combined with the GPS, the motion detection sensor and some image change detection via the internal video camera, this enables a new breed of “augmented reality” applications.

NearestWiki for example displays WikiPedia entries about buildings and places in the vicinity.

NearestWiki is not the first augmented reality app for the iPhone, but it is the first that is not tied to a specific region or city (like Metro Paris)

Next versions of the iPhone may feature more precise sensors and a lower latency – giving a much better feeling (e.g. labels not jumping around in the scenery).

Tinderbox goes Universal

One of the tools I am using for years now is Tinderbox from Eastgate. I have used it for quite some time to write this weblog here (but swichted to WordPress + MarsEdit recently). Nevertheless I think Tinderbox is a helper in many ways – although there are always features that can be and will be missed.

With a retail price of $229 USD the tool is not cheap – but depending on the usage and potential productivity gain this can be a bargain.


If you are ready and able to write some export templates one can export almost anything to XML or HTML and turn that into layouted documents, presentations or websites.

The “magic” of Tinderbox is that it allows visual unstructured brainstorming and turn that into structured documents over time. But does not stop there like other mind mapping tools: by adding text notes, metadata, agents and actions that perform queries and manipulate data. So you can make your document smarter and add some automatism to it. There are endless ways to use Tinderbox and to make it fit to your brain.

After watching some screencasts you can read some examples of what people are doing with Tinderbox.

You can’t expect from Tinderbox: online collaboration, custom import of any data, direct export to MS Office documents and the like, table editing within notes, a programmable enviroment (alhtough actions and agents can do a lot already), a Windows version (supposed to be in the making).

Here is a software review by Natan Matias from Sitepoint.

Thoughts on Google Wave

I am just collecting some thoughts about some observations and issues – while I am trying to understand Google Wave.


(see a demo on their site)

Google Wave is an integrated set of technologies (with protocols that allow semi-synchronous editing of outlines and their federation across several servers). With this approach Google Wave solves some difficult technical and infrastructural problems.

But it also generates some new problems that need to be solved to make Google Wave a success — otherwise I think users will not adopt the system (which in case of Google will set the seal on this project I suppose!).

1. Misty horizon

Google Wave is a frameworked solution for things people did not ask for and communication processes that no one is practicing yet (but no one has really “asked” for the mouse as input device either!). It is hard to see where Google Wave is going to be. This breeds creation, but it also challenges the non-developer. There will be best practices, but it will take a lot of time to identify use cases that people can learn “to wave” with.

So Google Wave challenges the imagination – and few people will be able to answer the “What is it all about?” question easily. The horizon is schrouded in mist.

Possible approach: A potential solution to this is to start with guided tours (a LOT of them) showing very common and powerful use cases for different scenarios. This is probably going to happen when Wave gets closer to the public beta.

2. Asynchronous patterns

We have learned to communicate in a turn taking fashion. It is polite to let someone speak until he has finished before starting to respond. It is not polite for everyone to speak up at any time. Waves allow people to reply or edit without obeying to the turn taking pattern. This can cause “stress” and also a lot of misunderstanding. People could reply to a text, that is going to change without them noticing that. Their reply suddenly become nonsense – the playback feature could become the only way to percieve a conversation properly. But playback is new – people have learned that the threaded view is a chronology – but in Google Wave it is not (or not necessarily).

Even with the playback feature, people need to become aware of the asychronicity in Google Wave – and learn how to recap conversations correctly.

Possible approach: Find a very good way to understand the chronology of a wave (e.g. making the playback as fundamental for navigation of a wave like scrolling)

3. Information (over)flow

While Google Wave may integrate many messaging systems – it also generates a lot of density. Means of communication that were apart from each other – using different URLs and applications for each – are now combined. The crucial part of that is to understand which option is suited for what purpose.

With Waves being set to “updated” by displaying them in bold typeface and sorting it to become a top item in the inbox, this also means that things are brought to my attention that should remain buried for a good reason. Google Wave users would have to learn how to manageund understand the “Inbox” and the “Active” areas properly, to be able to get the most out of it.

Possible approach: Allow users very powerful and fine grained control over the way they are informed about updates.

4. Scattered spaces and framgmented scopes

One of the things that really can make things too complex to be comprehended properly is that people can read & write to waves – but replies can extend or narrow the scope (e.g. who may read and reply to a new item. Who is reading? Who am I replying to? Is this part really private or not? Am I releasing a secret to the public accidentally?)

With a view from a different angle: What I can see within a wave may be different to what someone else is seeing. To make my communication appropriate to the situation I need to be able to “read” from a different standpoint. It is required to understand when communication could fail on the recieving end.

Whenever I want to understand the perspective of someone else – in need to be able to represent his/her view in my mind. The change of scope for parts of a wave within that wave can make this difficult.

Possible approach: Make any changes of the scope (e.g. recipient list) within a wave very visible and allow users to navigate them.

WebKit adds 3D

The developers of the Webkit HTML rendering engine (the one that is used in the Apple Safari Browser) have added 3D styles to CSS. It allows layers to be rotated, scaled and moved in a 3D space.

You need to download a nightly build of the browser to see it working.

There are quite a number of applications for this I can think of. I wonder if this approach will be adopted by the W3C for a new CSS standard.

Project Natal – the first true innovation from Microsoft

I have been thinking about Project Natal over the weekend. I do not want to discredit some of the innovations Microsoft has created over the last two decades – but for the most part Microsoft has not been able to create innovations on its own (but rather mimicking or buying stuff from outside). There may be some advances like C# and .NET – but generally this is insider stuff – meaning nothing to a wider public.

Project Natal may be the first true innovation with an Microsoft stamp on it. Fifteen years ago I have seen programmers trying to recognize 2D movements of arms and legs from a video – with results that were respectable – but never a game changer. Too much CPU power was required back then to be relevant in the consumer market.

To include the 3rd dimension in the motion detection is such a game changer. Combined with voice and face recoginition, this takes away the controller out of the control: your full persona is represented in the system – not just your fingertip. This is radical – and it has been a dream for many many years.

Just look at this example from game designer Peter Molyneux from Lionhead:

The device is so complex that a developer will have to have access to an SDK that allows simplified communication with the sensory system of Natal. Frameworks could provide automatic recognition of gestures to programmers – even in combination (so I you wave your arm, that would call another function than waving your arm and saying “Bye!”).

The level of precision could increase with future revisions. It could be combined with classical controllers. Maybe one day even finger positions, fluctuations/timbre of the voice, body temperature or point of view will be detected as well. Simple “lite” versions specialized on facial parameters could replace webcams in laptops.

So I do not look at Natal as a game controller – I see it as a complete new interface generation coming up.

Hats off to Microsoft!

Project Natal

Obviously Microsoft feels the need to claim back some market share the Nintendo Wii took away with a new controller type. Project Natal is utilizing a range of biometric sensors for body motion, face and voice recognition.

The video is more a vision than an actual feature presentation. But it is clear what the goals are.

Here is another Video from the demonstration that shows what is possible right now:

Fast Company: Is Information Visualization the Next Frontier for Design?

This article asks wether or not Information Visualization is a field on its own in Information Design:

If we’re going to live in a world driven by data, the thinking goes, we need a simple means of digesting it all. We are increasingly a visual society, and our understanding of the world is increasingly made possible by this new visual language.

… and …

Designers have historically excelled at finding insightful ways of looking at complex problems. Visualization will likely play a prominent role as design evolves beyond the consumer economy (selling $2,000 poufs and other high-end furnishings) and helps create efficient new forms of buildings, food distribution and transportation.

Future of Interfaces

DesignReviver (via @blogblog) has compiled a categorial list of aspects that drive future UI development:

  • Better and more intuitive devices interaction
  • Everyday devices connected to the Internet
  • Multi-touch, without touching the screen
  • Interactive and intuitive user interfaces for better browsing
  • Gesture based interfaces
  • Interfaces aware of context
  • New materials that will influence UI

While I agree with the list in general there is something I do not like about it: this list is purely determined by technological advances.

We will see changes in almost all areas of society: how we shop, how we love, how we go about politics, what we regard as value, etc.

So I add some other (very speculative and spontaneous) ideas that are not so much based of the hardware innovation:

  • Laws that require users have ideal control over privacy issues (hopefully!)
  • Programmable operating systems on any device with good scurity
  • Redundant storage on different locations that “logically cloud together” in a personal and searchable environment
  • Working culture that permits more work “on the road” as before (specifically regarding the social aspects involved in this)
  • Affordable plans for wireless connectivy and low-priced roaming
  • Architectural advances that integrate media and new display/projection technologies into the interior environments