Useful Technologies That Are Too Complicated or Geeky to Use

videoeyewearThe market usually sends pretty clear signals about product design. Make it ugly, awkward, too big, or unintuitive to use, and the market will usually reject it. Simple, small and elegant does it. The telephone and the television couldn’t be simpler — though some attempts to improve them (cell phones with hundreds of esoteric functions, the videotape recorder, and most TV guides of both the manual and electronic variety) have been horribly designed. There’s an enormous temptation to add features and functionality just because it’s possible, easy and inexpensive to do so. But it’s a mistake. If there’s sophistication, it needs to be hidden under the cover, like in Google search or the iPod. If you need a manual or ‘user training’, it’s too complicated. If the manual is bigger than the product, well…you know.

Here are some very useful technologies that have enormous promise but which have not caught on because they violate these rules. If you’re a designer, or work with a company that has good designers, please see what you can do about these — the world needs simple, small/portable, elegant versions of all of them:

  1. Videoconferencing: I’ve talked to dozens of people about everything from webcams to virtual reality videoconferencing systems, and the same words keep coming up: “uncomfortable”, “prone to embarrassing failures at the worst times”, “cumbersome”, “need a techie on standby at all times”, “grainy and jerky”, “not worth the effort”. With the soaring cost of travel, the plummeting cost of bandwidth, and the untapped opportunity to connect loved ones across the globe, videoconferencing has to be poised to explode — if the design failures can be solved. And don’t tell me video is just too much of a bandwidth hog to ever reach ‘is it live or is it Memorex’ quality — if I can download a near-DVD quality movie in not much longer than it takes to view it, quality should not be an issue.
  2. Voice Recognition: Three times I’ve tried to ‘train’ newer generations of voice recognition software to understand my dictation, and each time I’ve given up in frustration. There has to be a better way. Why couldn’t the software train me by chatting with me? It could tell me to repeat various words and phonemes while I was working on other tasks, and ask me questions whenever I typed a word it hadn’t heard me say. It could even do some some background searches and lookups for me, following standing orders or inferring what I might find useful from what I was looking at. And through ‘conversations’ with me, it could really learn how I talk, how I pronounce, to the point that, by also studying my writing, it could probably transcribe my dictation with better accuracy than I could type my thoughts. The technology exists to do all this. All it takes it some ingenuity, and some good design. And within a few years, we could get rid of the world’s most anachronistic tool, the keyboard, forever.
  3. 3D Display Video Eyewear: With the keyboard gone through better voice recognition, the next encumbrance to do away with is the monitor. You can already buy units like that shown above from Icuiti, and it’s comparable in price to monitors, but the people I’ve talked to say they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing anything so geeky (and they also fear damage to their health or eyes from extended use). But the people I know who have tried them, as a replacement for a computer monitor, DVD player or game monitor are just blown away by the 3D and the surround-video virtual reality effect. If we can get reliable voice recognition, light, tiny high-resolution video eyewear, and wireless-anywhere high-speed Internet connections, we can do away with the keyboard, the monitor and the hard drive of our PCs without losing any functionality. So we could stop carrying around laptops and lower-functionality substitute personal electronic devices like cell phones and PDAs. What’s holding us back?
  4. Music and Video Composers: With weblogs, anyone can be an author and publisher. Technology readily available today also allows us to be music composers, radio broadcasters and film-makers. It’s been around for a generation, but the software to do this remains complicated and almost impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a studio engineer or experienced videographer. But after all, it’s not much different from composing text —  you have a bunch of channels and you compose sound or video, record it in a channel, and then edit it all together into a coherent production. So why does the software have to be so damned complicated? It doesn’t. Maybe the popularity of podcasting will force the software designers to rethink how we compose sound and video, and make it as simple as it could be. 

There is absolutely no reason why I can’t be walking around the block dictating my blog post for tomorrow and having the software suggest changes and tell me when it’s in doubt about spelling, and then videoconferencing with Jon in Vancouver about it using my video eyewear, and recording a video podcast based on our discussions to attach to my blog post.

“If only it were that easy”.

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6 Responses to Useful Technologies That Are Too Complicated or Geeky to Use

  1. SB says:

    But I can type — and think — faster than I can talk! I hope the keyboard doesn’t go away. However, on high-pain days, I do wish for good voice recognition software.

  2. Christian Faucher says:

    The keyboard will not go away in favour of voice recognition. I can’t imagine entire offices of people muttering to their computers. I agree that the current user interface of computers is in need of a serious rethinking. I predict the mouse will be the next to dissapear. Oh, and there are already many cheap tools for making audio and video which are simple enough for those who put the effort to learn them. And most people produce pedestrian material with them.

  3. Naadir Jeewa says:

    RE: 3D Video HeadwearUnfortunately, there’s some cases where you don’t want to be wearing a headset.Like waiting for a friend in Starbucks, or perhaps keeping an eye on the rest of your valuables. I’d see headwear being used more in the home environment.That said, one of my supervisors got hold of a pair of prototype cyber-glasses from Sony which certainly looked the part, but even he refused a dare to wear them to work.

  4. Bruce Winter says:

    Dave: Here’s a Vancouver company making strides in the video conferencing category. is pretty nimble technology, with lots ofapplications. Pretty brave by the company do to a ‘live’ demo. Lots of statements made there! Pretty sure you could be conferencing about your 3D glasses here.I attended video conferencing demo by Sony and several other vendors, last week, that drew major interested from health and education industries. The systems presented are still device, as opposed to network oriented. Picture clarity bandwidth and archive retrieval are mission critical issuees, in health care. From what I saw they are being resolved. Just as important, Sony has acknowledged closed proprietary systems are not the answer. Their systems ‘talk’ to their competitors through angnostic third party software. Still pretty cumbersome, even trying to describe it. That’s a major step towards ‘open’ system communication for an old media company. These old media solutions are probably usefull for command and control organisations like health care and education with large IT departments that need to justify their existence. With equipment to purchase and software to manage they can do that. Not sure how that makes me ‘healthier’. Not sure that’s the objective!It’s incumbent for organisations to stay in loop on video. Just because previous experience may not have measured up is not a good reason to give up, is it? Particuarily, if there is a need to fill.The link to the to the video above is a case to the point. It’s a major breakthrough. We are enabled to share information and discuss someone else’s product/service, all pretty new stuff. There’s some real value for COM VU in that clip sitting on a server!

  5. Mike says:

    It’s fun to take everyday thoughts and see if they can answer the Fermi paradox. For example, maybe those civilizations that didn’t strain their brain and instead waited for things to be easy all died out.

  6. I think the audio barrier will fall in the next 18 months — podcasting is pushing consumer level audio production to have an ease of use factor that’s more like blogging. For my part, I’d love to have things like TOR — which provides anonymous browsing without having to pay a commercial proxy server company — have reasonable installers and documentation for nonprogrammers.I taught myself to use a video editor this year and the learning curve is substantial. Once you know how to do it, though, it’s addictive. It’s so much fun.

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