Designed in 2 Minutes?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Contactability

One of my friends, the ever-enthusiastic Andrew Oakley of Middlesex University, was recently chatting with me on Skype (http://www.skype.com), the free internet phone service which is taking the world by storm.

We'd been discussing the Skype API which allows third-parties to create software which 'hooks' into Skype in order to provide extra functionality, such as Business Card export or a voicemail program which we'd just discovered and were testing.

Andrew made the following rather amusing observation:

We invent telephones to talk to people.
We invent answer machines to catch em if we're out.
Then we invent mobile phones so we can catch people if they're out.
Then we invent voicemail incase there's no signal.
Then we invent Skype incase they're on the net.
Then we invent Skype voicemail just incase you still can't get them!!!!

It's quite a good description of how we strive to be ever more 'contactable' in our new digital world. Contrast this with some remote parts of Africa where they don't even use timekeeping devices, and certainly no mobile phones, so it's common to be waiting for someone to turn up for a meeting for most of the morning.

But without the pressure we Capitalists suffer of making every second profitable and attempting to be contactable at any given moment of the day, it's not something that matters so much to these people in the grand scheme of things.

Maybe all of us should learn from this, take a break and just disappear somewhere remote, away from all digital technology and the concept of timekeeping, and just enjoy life as it comes?! :-)

Friday, December 10, 2004

"So simple a child can use it..."

A new product from Norway recently hit the shelves and it has impressed a lot of people, including myself.

It focusses on the shortcomings that Microsoft's Windows is certainly not so simple that a child can use it (safely). I've caught my four year old sister attempting to delete the C:\Windows directory before...

From a child's point of view the average computer is far too complex for their needs. My sister only wants to play games, paint pictures, and send emails to me when I'm away at university. She gets baffled by having to load different programs to do different tasks, and having to remember which buttons to press to do something like write an email. She does, however, have a good grasp of the filing systems concept meaning she can reliably locate a file up to 3 or 4 directories deep as long as she remembers where she last put it.

She has no idea how to deal with things like spam or dodgy websites (not that I'm particularly worried about her trying to order a shipment of V!@gr@ from a dodgy Nigerian lawyer) and why should she? The concept of someone trying to sell her something in an email - a text-only medium, not a physical shop - is rather alien to her. But all the same it's best that these things are filtered out before she gets to read them.

Easybits' Magic Desktop is described as "a protective shell which sits on top of Microsoft Windows" and provides a very friendly interface for children to use to interact with the computer. All extraneous data is stripped away leaving a fun desktop with a very simple method of operation.

Programs (or 'tasks' as they appear to the user) are loaded with a single point and click. Double-clicking never made much sense to me anyway, but we've all learned to live with it! If a program is executed multiple times (ie. the user clicking repeatedly on the icon until the program appears) the system realises this and still only loads one copy of the program to save the user from being suddenly inundated with 33 email compose windows.

The email program (which doesn't appear as a separate program to the user, it's all integrated) works on a very visual premise. Click on the "Talking Parrot" to record a message (primarily aimed at under-5s I'd guess, unless my sister is unusual in being able to type, albeit slowly and patiently, at her age) and then click on a photo of the recipient to send it.

Administrators (ie. parents) have the ability to bypass the Magic Desktop shell and configure the environment from Microsoft Windows. Emails are only accepted on a whitelist basis (anything not from an allowed sender is rejected) and websites are similarly whitelisted.

Unnecessary features, such as the ability to blind-carbon-copy the mail to a distribution list whilst requesting return receipts, are stripped out completely as they're likely to be totally meaningless to a child, leaving only the core essential features of the system. Audio compression and attaching to the email are all handled in the background and the user has to make just two button clicks to successfully email grandma or big brother.

There's nothing more irritating to me than typing myprog --help in a terminal and having three pages of meaningless switches and commands scroll past. And don't get me started on Microsoft Word's forays into desktop publishing, web design, email composing, and line drawing (all areas it totally sucks at)... a word processor should surely be a word processor and nothing more.

If only programs for 'grown up' systems could be so well-focussed on a single task with a simple, no-clutter interface!

Digital Divide set to stay

A recent report has shown that currently 50% of Britons are without any form of internet access, and even as far away as 2025 40% of us still won't see the point in getting online at home.

If this is true, it threatens our society in quite a deep way. By 2025 (indeed, long before) the Government wants a lot of our infrastructure to be run via the Internet. (No doubt the telcos are quite keen on this idea too). Education will assume students have Internet access for research and, increasingly, everyday admin such as submitting work from home or keeping in touch with tutors.

The NHS would like people to make use of online systems to get health information rather than taking up valuable GP time.

Employers are more and more often requesting job applications and CVs to be emailed in to save on admin costs, and increasingly work is done from home rather than enduring the stressful, time-consuming, costly commute that so many people currently put up with daily.

Since I got connected at the age of 13 in 1998 I've noticed more and more of my everyday life coming to rely on Internet access. Coursework is submitted by email, course notes are all to be found online, communications with distant family and friends is achieved solely through instant messaging applications and Voice over IP systems. In the 6 short years since I first dialled up at 28kbps the world has changed phenomenally and yet many people are still left back in the 'pre-historic' world before the digital revoolution took off. I would now never consider anything less for my home than always-on 0.5Mbps Internet access as so much of my life depends on being able to communicate digitally with the rest of the world.

But with horror stories every day in the media of worms and viruses, hacker attacks and spyware, spam and the new menace, phishing - it's no surprise that a lot of less technically-confident people would rather steer clear of such a potential minefield.

Perhaps we need to take a step back and ensure our society is inclusive to all regardless of whether or not they have a broadband connection, rather than telling everyone they have to have a computer and Internet access to keep up with 'the modern world'.

Big Brother is Watching You

According to BBC News people are much more likely to allow their private lives to be scrutinised by a computer system if they can associate that system with a real person.

People are naturally a little wary of Orwellian style 24-hour surveillance in their homes (I certainly wouldn't allow it) yet technology makers are keen to have systems which do exactly this.

However instead of reporting back to Big Brother these systems are supposed to analyse details such as when you normally get up to make breakfast, or when you might usually be out of the house. This might allow the system to switch lights and heating on in advance of when you wake up, or cycle lights in the house during weekend breaks to give the impression that the house is occupied.

Sounds pretty cool, but don't forget that your every move is being watched and recorded on camera... I bet you'll think twice before dancing around the kitchen with the mop next time.

One of the researchers into this type of system, Dr Richard Bowden, noted: "When we put the surveillance cameras in our centre, a lot of people were very unhappy about the fact that there was a system watching them".

Richard and his team have created an avatar (virtual face) which sits on a screen where the user can observe it. To add to the personality of the system, they even called it Jeremiah and refer to the system as "him". Jeremiah is interactive to a degree, and can react (by changing his facial patterns) to visual stimuli using camera systems, so he can smile when a person appears to be playing or skipping around, or appear sad if you leave the room, for example. Think Holly from Red Dwarf, only with a significantly smaller IQ and not quite as senile.

"But when Jeremiah's camera went in, nobody minded, because although it's still watching them, they could see what it was watching." said Dr Bowden.

Which just goes to show, if any would-be police state dictators are planning on rising up in the near future, pay close attention to HCI issues with your monitoring systems. It just might make the difference between peaceful world domination and bloody revolution.

Library swipe card readers

In the Main Library, where I work as a Computing Help Assistant, there are barcode readers in the entrance lobby to ensure authorised access by University ID card. Every student or staff member has to swipe in and the systems has been designed to operate as quickly as possible. Here's how it should work:


  • The person enters the building and queues at one of the three entry gates.
  • When reaching the gate they hold their card an inch above the reader panel (to save having to put it physically on the panel then trying to pick it up again).
  • Providing the card is valid and can be read, the gates swiftly open to allow the person to continue to walk through.


If you get it right (and there's no queue) you can approach the gates at walking pace, extend your arm with the card in hand, and be through the other side of the gates without having to slow down. It's that fast. I love it.

However the system falls down at one simple point - a significant number of users don't seem to understand how the reader panel works.

The panel's laser beam is deliberately focussed to a plane about an inch above the glass of the panel. This, as mentioned above, is so that users don't have to place the card on the panel then spend valuable seconds attempting to pick it up off the flat surface using their fingernails.

But most peoples' prior exposure to barcode readers will have been in supermarkets where the checkout operator usually (traditionally) places the object directly on the barcode reader panel. So they assume they should do the same when entering the Library with their ID card.

The card reader is deliberately long-sighted, meaning that users who place their cards on the reader panel then get frustrated that their card appears not to be readable, and they try rubbing the card up and down the panel as if it was a box of cornflakes at the checkout. After a significant time they may either realise their mistake or someone else who's already realised what's going on may point out to them that they need to hold the card above the reader.

So, as usual, Library staff have had to resort to hand-made notices to help users to get around design flaws or limitations in the sytem (witness the Learning Centre front doors which have had no end of problems and have at least three notices explaining how to enter the building!)

A bit more research into user tendencies before deploying new technologies is usually worth the time and money it takes!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Text Messaging

I personally am not really a fan of text messaging but I occasionally use my mobile phone to send messages. One of the main reasons why I am always reluctant to use that feature is that I sometimes have to write the same message more than once and at a slow pace. In fact several times I lost the messages I was writing because they were not saved when surprised by a phone call I elected to take the call directly.

This happened independently of the brand of telephone I used so far: Motorola, Nokia, or Samsung that I currently use. When in the middle of the message there is an incoming call, a single key press switches to the call and whether you accept or reject it is another matter. In either case, once the operation is terminated you realise that the message you were writing is no longer on display and there is no way to retrieve it in the phone. You therefore must type it in again if you are really keen or the message is very important otherwise like me you just can’t be bothered trying again.

The system should be design with safeguards in such a way that until you send a message that you are typing in, whenever there is a sensible, prompt and comprehensible interruption such as the urge to answer a call, whatever button you press to deal with the call should automatically save a copy of the message. That way you can always fall back on the message and decide whether you carry on editing or delete it etc… so far the option exist only if we specially take the time to go through the normal saving. But to be fair did we automatically jump to answer the call without going through that process? The answer in my case is always because I assume that my message somehow will still be there somewhere when I’m done with the call. Hence my frustration and anger when I realise that I have just lost a message I have been writing for about 15 minutes. So for people like me what massive difference it will make to have that feature enhanced with that automatism…

How SMS is growing in people…

SMS (Short Message Services) which at its invention wasn’t intended for simple individual civil use is quickly becoming an integral part of people’s life. Once used by a very restraint category of people for the transfer of sensible information, SMS are nowadays used by anyone and for pretty much anything (simple conversation, receive news, etc…).

The phenomenon is so massive that now all the biggest companies from all the spectrums are investing in exploiting this channel to target their potential customers as shown in the German’s example below:

Over 70 percent of commercial revenues on youth-oriented TV networks such as MTV Deutschland are SMS-related during certain time slots these days. A commercial break on such channels is a six-minute cavalcade of adverts for phone ring tones, SMS subscription services and SMS dating chat lines.

Major TV networks and the country's biggest news magazines all offer SMS breaking news services, allowing subscribers to read news on their mobiles even before it breaks on TV or radio.

All that comes from studies made by specialised companies to assess the level of use of the messaging technology such as the survey by the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) recently showed Germans send a whopping 200 million messages a year, which was nearly three times as many as the Finns, in second place at 75 million or Britons at 70 million. In contrast, the United States was not even listed among the top 20 countries.

http://www.expatica.com/source/site_article.asp?subchannel_id=52&story_id=6469

Some figures about the use of text messages:

China's mobile phone users sent more than 15.6 billion text messages in January, an increase of 91.2% from the same time last year, the government said Friday, reports the WSJ (world street journal).

On New Year’s Eve 2004 only:

  • 88 million SMS were sent by the 3 French operators
  • 22 million in Belgium compared to 7 million the previous year
  • 111 million SMS in the UK, an 8% increase on the year before
  • 66.4 million SMS and MMS in Switzerland compared to 58.2 in 2003
  • In Czech Republic 38.5 million SMS were sent
  • 146 million text messages were handled by the three main operators during the holiday period
  • India saw an unprecedented 180% increase in volumes to 60 million SMS compared with 21 million the previous year.
  • The cell phone industry recorded 85.5 million short message services during the festive season.
http://www.clickatell.com/brochure/sms_industry/statistics.php

These impressive figures unfortunately come only from rich and developed countries what about 1/3 world countries? Even though they used mobiles phones and text messages, reports show that although it’s a cheap technology in rich countries it remains quite expensive and not yet affordable for everybody in the third world.

Text messages are integral part of our life and are here to stay and it is very effective way to communicate. Can we now imagine our life without test messages?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Elite

Introduction
Elite is a fantastic retro game which still holds my interest and is very playable, even 20 years after it was first released in the mid-1980s for the BBC Micro. Conversions have been made to many platforms and one of the most highly-regarded conversion was the one to the Acorn Archimedes running RISC OS. The RISC OS version packs a whole load more playability compared to the original BBC version, as well as giving solid full-colour graphics rather than the original wireframe design.

One of the key features of the RISC OS version is symmetry - you are not the centre of the universe (as in the BBC version, with everyone constantly trying to kill you) but rather you can see pirates and police engaging in their own battles, and Bushmasters mining deep into asteroids as you fly past.

My RISC OS-powered Iyonix PC is still able to run the game and it often takes up spare moments between lectures or lengthy periods at night...

Gameplay
The idea is simple, and may even seem tedious in the days of multi-million-dollar multi-mission blockbuster games, until you remember that this game was the first of its kind and introduced a revolutionary new style of gaming which is still being played today.

Put simply, you play the character of a lone trader in a world several centuries away where private spaceflight is available to all. It is up to you what you do with the rest of the game; it's very much open-ended (there is no end to the game!) and you choose what you do from the moment you launch from the space station orbiting around the planet Lave, the Santaari Galaxy's spaceflight training centre.

Trading
You can try to make an honest living by trading in simple goods, ferrying them back and forth between nearby planetary systems, but you will soon need to venture into the more dangerous systems governed in feudal or even anarchy states. In these systems, pirate activity is rife and you need to have a well-equipped ship to defend yourself.

The game is so well thought-out that this simple method of play on its own is more than satisfying. But because of the open-ended design of the game where all actions are up to you, a whole range of career options - none actually specified in the game - is open to you. You can deal in more contraband goods such as slaves, narcotics, Ulganian slug furs, or firearms but be wary of the police who will make it hard for you to approach a planetary system once you have a criminal record.

Mining
You can buy mining lasers and follow the Bushmasters around between asteroid fields, mining the lumps of rock and selling the minerals to the nearest industrial planet.

Bounty-hunting
Or you can play vigilante and become a bounty hunter - going solo or following a police squadron around to find and destroy the pirates that group together at the edges of every system, perhaps even collceting their strewn cargo to sell at the nearest space station.

Piracy
You can also go down the highly exciting route of becoming a pirate yourself - either through dealing in too many contraband goods and obtaining fugitive status, or by ignoring your conscience and blasting apart innocent traders in order to steal their cargo. But beware if you follow this career path - the police (who shoot first and ask questions later), gangs of rival pirates, bounty hunters, and scared traders will all fight back and you'll never be more than 5 minutes from another firefight.

Of course, you can try to clean up your act - but this can be very hard to do with police and traders constantly shooting at you. Killing innocents is seen as Very Naughty and will get you deeper into trouble. The only way to get out of trouble is to kill lots of pirates (this will get you favour with the police) and run away fast when the police themselves arrive so you don't have to fight your way out and get intro deeper trouble again.

Upgrading your ship
Ships can be upgraded with meaningful upgrades - not just bigger and bigger weapons as you may find in more modern games. The principle of Elite is that you attain a kill rating by simply being good enough. Buying 1000 heat seeking cluster missiles hardly shows a great deal of pilot skill, so the game encourages the pilot to develop their flight and combat skills in order to attain the status of Elite simply by surviving and being good at it.

It is this principle which makes the game so endearing as it's all about developing personal skill rather than making lots of money (it's perfectly possible to become Elite with a totally un-upgraded ship, just very difficult!).

Other upgrades are those which enable you to carry more cargo, recharge your shields faster, dock into space stations automatically using a computer, fire lasers from the side and rear parts of your ship, destroy enemy (and friendly) missiles, jump through wormholes to one of seven other galaxies, and collect solar wind streams to convert energy into free fuel (this also enables you to collect floating cargo cannisters and other debris). In some conversions of the game, such as Elite-A, you can also purchase and fly many of the different types of ships mentioned in the game (In Elite you're limited to just your Cobra MkIII which is arguably one of the better ships anyway).

Revolutions
In terms of revolutionary design, the game is one of the most important ever. It was the first to introduce a real-time 3D vector graphics engine to a home computer game, a model which is still followed today. One of the most instantly-recognisable features of Elite is its scanner. For a 3D real-time game its designers had to come up with a new way of describing the precise location of any nearby ship or object as 2D scanner displays used in most games at the time weren't up to the job.

screenshot of the game

The scanner David Braben and Ian Bell designed for their game consisted of an oval representing the space around the player's ship (actually a circle squashed by perspective, as you're viewing it from above and behind) where each object is represented by a green club. Imagine the club sticking up or down from the scanner, beginning at its tail. The very end of the tail of the club shows the x-y location of the object compared to the player, and the head of the club represents the height in the z dimension. Clearly a longer club indicates that the object is further up or down in space compared to the viewer than an object with a short club.

In the screenshot there are six ships besides my own represented on the scanner. As all the clubs have heads below the tails, the ships are all below mine in space. The exception is the 'dot' to the right of the central white dot in the scanner, which is a ship directly to my right, at the same altitude as mine. The blue Krait-class ship disappearing off the bottom of my screen is represented by the stubby blue club to the top-left of my scanner. Again the club head is lower than the tail, indicating that the ship is (just) below me.

Missions
Elite does contain a handful of prescribed missions, but in keeping with the open-ended design of the game they aren't forced on you in any way. One day, when docking after a routine spaceflight, you may receive an urgent message when you enter the space station. These missions do depend on a few factors - you having enough kills, being in the correct galaxy, etc. Missions range from dropping a supply capsule from low altitude onto a planet, to tracking down and hunting a merciless pirate and his gang of support fighters. Missions are definitely not part of the main fabric of the game though. You will have needed to play for many hours before being offered the first mission, and after they're completed there are no more. The main point of the game is still to explore and survive.

Miscellaneous information
Novella
The marketers of the original BBC Micro version of Elite took an unusual and bold strategy for introducing new players to the game. Instead of the usual "you are captain of a fleet..." two-page spiel they commissioned someone to write a short novel which was supplied with the game pack. The novella drops the player straight into a well thought-out universe full of amazing and exotic characters, all of which are superficial to the game, but the end effect is to immerse the player in this fantasy universe and give them some purpose of exploration as they play. It's since inspired many more novellas to be written by fans, and even a musical!

Types of craft
They also provided a full size wall chart of many of the different types of ships that can be spotted, with some elementary statistics and (arbitrary) history of its design. Some ships were deliberately left off this chart as a surprise for the hapless player, and rumours were placed in the Pilot's Handbook of gigantic dredger-ships the size of a city, and generation ships from many decades previously. No further mention is made of these ships and 20 years on no one has conclusively proved that they do or don't exist. My uncle claims to have seen a dredger in the outer reaches of Xeaqu and he's not alone in his claims. I've never seen one of these myself and many people have scoured the game's code in an attempt to find any references to the objects, with no apparent success.

Yet many variations of the original Elite were produced and distributed, and it's possible that there is still a rare variant out there which does contain the craft!

All of this adds such an amazing richness to the game that it's no wonder it has lasted 20 years and still has a strong cult following.

Links:
Simon Challands' Archimedes Elite pages
Ian Bell - one of the original authors
My own ArcElite tribute site

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Dot.com overload!

A couple of years ago when I was doing an HNC the Internet was actually a usefull tool for searching for information and google and altavista were resonallbly new search engines. Now I am becomming all tooo tired of the fact that any search you do no matter how much you try to refine it you are not faced with never ending dot.com companies advertising something. It goes on for pages and pages of searches and not only that some of the page descriptions lead you to believe that is an information site and when you click again its just another dot.com company trying to sell something. I end up giving up and going to the library, its less convienient but as least I don't get bombarded by 50 companies trying to sell me something before just giving up.

The information highway or the online shopping mall!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Online Bookings

The end of term is for very soon and so is Christmas with all the frantic activities linked to that period of the year, and one of the most popular activities is travelling. Beside people travelling for business purposes as usual, there are people going in all directions in order to spend the end of the year with their families, and other taking a break from work or studies to chase a little bit of sun shine and warm weather. Whatever the reasons are, it is a period where travel agencies and companies see a very substantial increase in the interest shown towards the services they offer. Most agencies offer those services (online bookings) on the internet via their web sites.

Because booking through the Internet is such a popular activity, we expect web site representing the companies to be develop accordingly i.e. with very thorough thought processes. In fact some are but other still don’t make very easy for potential customers.

I have been surfing these past days on the internet, trying to find the best deals possible for flying tickets and was quite impress with the functionality and the practicality of web sites such as www.ryanair.com and also www.easyjet.com . Here the developers understood that it is easier to deal with information display in a graphical way than strings of words. In fact on pages intended to give information about destinations, is a map of the world with all the destinations they covers represented by points. When you move the cursor over a specific point (city), all the cities for which there is a connection (route) with that city are linked by arrows. This way, customers can see immediately the trips offer instead of having to type in cities’ names in order to reach the same goal and it also save us time and avoids input mistakes. Having the information in seconds enable us to decide quickly the route we want to take for example I was interested in leaving England for the south of Spain, Almeria or Granada. Moving the cursor over Birmingham showed that only Dublin was connected and the same way I found that from London Stansted I could get to those cities. After that I could go straight and check the availability for a particular date and the system will display the result also showing the previous and the next day.

It is amazing to see that companies as the ones above mentioned invest more to make things easy for customers than those with a bigger notoriety such as British airway, air France for example. In fact it is easier and quicker to book a ticket online from ryanair than British airway, a company with a bigger budget.
Should it be that way or better shall they take our fidelity for granted?