Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What is a table for?

Let me ask you a question, what is a table for?
It may seem like a strange question yet it is not something we typically think about.
Furniture is taken for granted, in fact sometimes the word furniture is employed to mean the adornments in or on an object. You could say someone with lots of facial jewelry has 'furniture on their face' or, as I have heard it said, they have 'face furniture'
In our everyday lives we utilize furniture to enhance comfort and to perform functions, it is these functions that are worth exploring.
Think of all the things you do at a table. Eat food, work on your computer, layout a puzzle game, hold a meeting, and many more 'events' occur at a meeting. Consider which of those events take great advantage of the horizontal surface that is presented by the table. Playing puzzle game with friends, or holding a meeting at a table is something that clearly requires a horizontal platform. The horizontal nature of a table with multiple sides open and available for people to sit, presents the ideal place for holding a meeting. It enables eye to eye contact, allowing all participants to engage in a much fuller conversation. Such a large portion of communication between people is non-verbal and by facing the other parties around a table we can pick up on these subtleties. We can understand from proximity and quick glances of the eyes the nature of personal relationships between people.
Many technical solutions ignore the human interactions that are crucial for us to work together and create far shallower modes of engagement. Instant messenger, for example, provides a mode of communication between multiple parties, each siting at their own workstation. The nuances of passion, humor and disgust during the conversation can be hinted at with the use of emoticons. These provide a limited set of clues to hint towards the users feeling as they make a statement. The vocabulary of these is not just limiting but also deceptive. A person may want you to feel they are being jovial while really they are sad. You would only ever pick this up if you actually with the person. The telephone can provide a better medium for judging the mood of someone, through the tone of their voice and through other audio clues.
Yet nothing bis better than sitting at the table with someone for truly understanding their feelings and position on a topic. Most digital content is still presented using vertically oriented displays, yet these displays act as barriers to the optimum personal communication.
When working with the Tablet PC team at Microsoft in 2003- 2005 one thing became very clear, the slate form factor could radically change the dynamics of a meeting room. In a typical meeting at Microsoft people will bring their laptops and sit around a table, each staring into their own screen. This is incredibly anti social and detrimental to the level of engagement of the people in the room. In a meeting where each participant had a slate device the device did not act a barrier between the individuals at the table. Tabletop computing now has the opportunity to take this to the next level. By sharing the content directly on the tabletop the number of barriers is further reduced. A personal screen can present personal distractions during a meeting (email, IM, etc...), on a shared screen the focus can be on just the content desired.
Today I presented these concepts to a potential client showing the nsquared business pack for Microsoft Surface. It is clear that these applications can really change the dynamics of a meeting. Even as we were discussing the requirements of the project we were sketching out the ideas on nsquared thoughts. Tabletop computing should start to bring new ways of human engagement to our meeting rooms in the coming years and this will help us to work better together than many earlier technologies.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Measuring the success of your tabletop application

Over the last 2 years I have been heavily involved in working with tabletop software, specifically software for Microsoft Surface. Having content displayed directly on the table top can radically change the interaction that occurs between the users sitting around the table. How we present the information on the table top will greatly impact on this interaction.
A number of researchers have spent considerable time and effort working on this challenge and recently at the ACM International Conference on Interactive Tabletops and Surfaces 2010 (http://www.its2010.org/) some of this research was presented. One of the more interesting (and arguably problematic) papers was presented by Tang, Pahud, Carpendale and Buxton; entitled VisTACO: Visualizing Tabletop Collaboration. The paper presents a way that researchers can scientifically understand the interactions of the users at a table. One of goals being to validate the design of a multi-user tabletop computer.
I say this can be problematic because while it is easy to track the user interaction on the table top, with software, this project (as described in the paper) attempts to solve a couple of other challenges; 1. does the interaction change if the people are not all physically sitting at the same table, 2. does the spatial position (configuration) of the users impact on the interaction models. The results are certainly useful but do they tell the whole story about the success of an interaction model?
From the work we have been doing in the real world with tabletop multi user deployments at nsquared there are other factors at play that are less easy to measure. The emotional connections that are made between people at a table during an interaction is often (maybe always?) more important than the actual physical interactions that have occurred. Creating an environment that encourages a rich and deep social engagement has been one of our goals at nsquared.
Our other goal at nsquared, which might be even harder to evaluate, is to enhance the intelligence of the people using the technology. More on this topic another day.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A quick glance back

Today I was writing an email to a customer and I was explaining what the nsquared team has achieved in it's short lifetime, I thought I would share this with you because it is something to be proud of.

The nsquared team is a small and high specialized group of developers and designers based in Sydney. We do have people in the Uk, USA and Hong Kong, but most of the development happens out of our studio in Sydney. Our main mission is to make the world a better place through the intelligent application of technology. For this reason one of our core areas of focus has been education, where we believe so many of the world issues can be solved. A number of our team are ex-teachers and have a passion for teaching and helping people reach their potential.
We often see technology as something that hinders social engagement and this was one of the key attractions of Microsoft Surface. The table is a place of social engagement and adding digital content to the table should be used to enhance the conversation. The nsquared education pack has been the outcome of this work and you can find out more about this here http://nsquarededucationpack.com/

We also realized from the work we were doing that business meetings could be improved around a table, and drawing people's attention away from their personal computing devices to a shared screen would help increase the value of business interactions, this lead us to build the nsquared business pack, more information is here http://nsquaredbusinesspack.com/

We also have been busy exploring other touch and gesture based technologies, the most dominant being the Apple iOS set of devices, iPod, iPhone and iPad. We have been building apps for ourselves and third parties now for close to 2 years for these devices.You can explore all of our products on this page http://nsquaredsolutions.com/products/

As leaders in the field of Surface and NUI (natural user interface) development we wrote the first book on Surface development, http://nsquaredsolutions.com/surfacebook/

We are also the only company in the world with more than one application certified for Surface, in fact we have more applications certified for Surface than Microsoft does! http://www.microsoft.com/surface/en/us/Pages/Product/Applications.aspx

Through the work we have been doing we were awarded the contract, by Microsoft, to deliver all the Surface development training to new partners in Europe in 2009 and 2010.
Earlier this year I was awarded by Microsoft the first Microsoft Surface Most Valuable Professional award. https://mvp.support.microsoft.com/profile=BD4DC19A-A1B7-49B4-90B2-EB41C67F980F

It is so great to achieved all of this and yet I feel we have only just started. We have so many great ideas and big goals for the technology we are working on. I am sure that his time next year we will have added some more fantastic achievements to this list.
Watch this space....