People: on the edge

XII.6 November + December 2005
Page: 47
Digital Citation


Lars Holmquist

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The introduction of the desktop computer and the graphical user interface was the single most important contribution to the field we now call interaction design in the 20th century. It was created at the Xerox PARC research lab in the mid-'70s, and had a clear mission: to make interaction with digital documents easier, in anticipation of the "paperless office" of the future.

Today's desktop computer is very close to what the engineers at Xerox tried to create with the technology available to them at the time. For tasks like database processing, document creation, network management and so on, the "WIMP" (windows, icons, menus, pointers) interface seems to be almost optimal. Yet since then, many researchers have introduced new interface paradigms in the hope of making computers easier to use. But do new input and output mechanisms actually help solve any important problems?

At a film festival recently, I had the opportunity to talk to film director John Landis. When I mentioned I work with computers, he told me a funny anecdote about his movie The Blues Brothers, which premiered in 1980 (coincidentally a year before Xerox launched the first commercial computer with a graphical user interface). During the filming, someone came up with an idea for a gag: What if the police car that was chasing the Blues Brothers had a computer onboard? And what if the policemen could look up the criminal records of the owners of the cars they were chasing by entering the license number? Everyone on the set thought it was hilarious—a computer in a car! In 1980, everybody knew that computers were big, bulky, and could only be handled by experts. It was decided to have the gag in the movie, and the set decorator built a prop with a fake text display. The gag was filmed; after a chase, the policemen check the license plate of the Brothers' car in SCMODS—the State County Municipal Offender Data System!

For today's audiences the gag doesn't seem at all funny. The technology for SCMODS already exists, and Landis joked to me that he should have patented the idea when he had the chance. But the fact that we would not be at all surprised to see a computer in a car is both an indication of how far we have come, and how little has really happened in the last 25 years.

In the Public Safety group at the Viktoria Institute, researchers are studying how policemen work in the field. They found that while it is technically possible for the police to install a computer in a patrol car—much like Landis imagined in 1980—the policemen are not very likely to use it. Why? Because what is currently offered to the police is just that—a computer! The manufacturer ported the applications that are used in a desktop system, and put them on a minuscule screen on the dashboard. For policemen in the field, it simply does not make sense to interact with a desktop workstation. Very few Swedish police cars have such a system installed, and those that exist do not see much use. [Figure]

An interaction designer or researcher might now start thinking about how we could make that on-board computer easier to use by replacing the interface with something more suitable. But a better solution might be to take a step back and try to figure out what it is that the policemen really need in the car. Do they want to do the same things that they can do at the desktop? Or perhaps they are looking for something else entirely?

In fact, many policemen have installed their own piece of information technology: a small cut-out piece of whiteboard-like material that goes on the dashboard, in the same place where the computer screen would have been. They use this to scribble important information when they are sent on an assignment, to take notes when talking to a colleague on the radio, to write down orders for pizza, and to pass information along to the next team that is going to have the car. When the information has been used, it is easily wiped off. None of this functionality is available in the in-car computer. [Figure]

It seems the people who made the police-car system were fixated on the idea of a computer, whereas the policemen just have a job that needs to be done. And it is not at all clear to me that any new computer interface would actually make that job easier. Perhaps the policemen do not need a computer at all; they just need some way of taking notes and passing information along to each other. If so, a small piece of whiteboard could be the best—and certainly cheapest—solution.

Only by looking at what people are actually doing can we figure out what they really need. Research in new interaction techniques will never be of much use unless we have some problems to solve in the first place. Whereas the desktop interface came out of a specific need—making interaction with digital documents easier for the non-expert—many recent ideas seem to be solutions in search of a problem. By trying so hard to break out of the computer box, we might just be building another set of boxes to be confined in.

In the 20th century, it seemed like a funny idea to put a computer in a car. In the 21st century, it is still a funny idea, but for different reasons. As long as we think computer first, and problem second, it doesn't matter how we interact with it. Perhaps it is time to try to leave the very idea of a computer behind and concentrate on figuring out how digital technology can solve real problems—no matter what the interface looks like.

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1. The Blues Brothers. 1980. Directed by John Landis, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

2. The Public Safety research group at the Viktoria Institute

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Lars Erik Holmquist

About the Author:

Lars Erik Holmquist is leader of the Future Institute in Goteborg, Sweden. Before this, he founded and led the PLAY research group from 1997 to 2001. He is interested in innovative interactive technology, including tangible interfaces, informative art, mobile media and autonomous systems. He was general chair of UbiComp 2002, the international conference on ubiquitous computing and is an associate editor of the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.

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UF1Figure. A commercial police-car computer—expensive and rarely used.

UF2Figure. The policemen's own IT solution—a small piece of plastic for taking temporary notes.

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/1100  $5.00

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