HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 80
Digital Citation

HCI and mass communications

Andrew Zolli

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At first blush, the question "is human-computer interaction design a key to the future of mass communication?" seems paradoxical.

After all, the very thing that makes traditional mass communications platforms (such as television, radio, newspapers, and magazines) so successful is how completely they have solved their respective interface challenges. Radical ease of use is what enabled these communications formats to become mass media in the first place: Watching TV requires gestures so mindless that they often fall below the threshold of consciousness; the New York Post can be read even by hung-over, half-awake New Yorkers on their Monday morning subway commutes. These traditional media are tours de force of interface simplicity, possessing a robustness to which the designers of Web sites and software applications routinely aspire. In one sense, then, the answer to the question is easy and obvious: As long as new digital communications platforms have room to improve¬óas long as they're not yet as intuitive as television, newspapers and radio¬ócomputer-human interaction will of course play a part in their success. HCI can improve the world of Instant Messaging, Wireless Web Services, and other digital platforms that will drive mass communications in the next 20 years. And surely it will do so.

But this incrementalist answer obscures the greater challenge and opportunity implicit in the significant transformation that mass media is undergoing. If simplicity defined mass communications in the 20th century, then context will define it in the 21st. Two widely commented-upon, accelerating trends suggest this conclusion:

  • The first trend is the increasing power of media access devices. Today, unsurprisingly, much of this discussion focuses on the convergence of cell phones and personal digital assistants. Tomorrow, the conversation will likely center on broadband television and digital ink and paper, as those platforms mature. In the short and long terms, the amount, variety, intensity and value of the communications these devices will support will dramatically increase.
  • The second trend is the infusing of the physical environment with greater intelligence and connectivity. Today, this conversation centers on the vicissitudes of wireless fidelity (WiFi) and wireless networking. Tomorrow, the conversation will likely center on RFID-chip-enabled physical objects and geographically targeted wireless Web services. In both the short and the long term, we are merging physical and digital space-and adding a new dimension to the human environment.

As these two trends intersect, the world of mass communications will be remade. Such communications will become much more context sensitive, communicating not only different information based on whom, when, and where the end user is, but providing more contextual commentary alongside that traditional "content" of mass communications.

What might this look like? Consider the following thought experiment:

Jessica decides to hike the Appalachian trail, taking nothing with her but her GPS-enabled eMap. This lightweight, waterproof map is made with digital ink [1], weighs a few ounces, and folds in her pack when not needed. (Who would bring a laptop on a serious hike?)

The map tracks her progress continuously. As she approaches various points along the trail, her eMap calls up previous hikers' "blogged" photos and commentary, each linked via a GeoURL to a specific spot along the trail [2]. This gives Jessica a sense of the terrain ahead, side trails, and the collected wisdom of recent hikers. It also advertises restaurants, inns, and attractions along the way and presents professionally written articles by hiking experts. Noticing that a side trail is impassable because of a recent storm, Jessica photoblogs the impasse, adding to the collective map, and (anonymously) GeoIM's hikers within five miles to let them know that this is a dead end.

This scenario highlights several directions for the future of mass communications:

  • Geographic and temporal context sensitivity
  • Incorporation of divergent communications functions into a single device or object
  • Co-creation of content by end users and "professional"' authors
  • Management of the end-user's digital identity
  • A qualitative shift, from linear to non-linear, in the nature of "reading" such mass communications
  • Issues of extensibility and learnability over "mere" usability

Solving these kinds of interface challenges to produce effortless tools is the 21st century equivalent of what media companies have already achieved with television, radio, and print.

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1. E-ink, www.eink.com

2. GeoURL ICBM Address Server, www.geourl.org

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0300  $5.00

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