In conversation with Phil McKinney on NUI

26 08 2009

Phil McKinney and Anne in the Halo Room

2 weeks ago I was invited to participate in a discussion with HP‘s CTO, Phil McKinney, about Natural User Interfaces(NUI). As Phil is a very busy person, the discussion was held via HP’s cutting-edge video conference technology, Halo. Why cutting edge? It is because I felt as though Phil was sitting on the same meeting table as me in real-time. I could even see what Phil was sketching on a paper clearly.

Richness vs Reach/Mobility

Above, we see a sketch that Phil drew to start off his discussion. This is a graph showing the state of technology right now in the balance between Richness (user experience, high definition, sound quality, etc) and Reach/Mobility (reaching out and making technology available to more markets). For example, devices like televisions are high in Richness but low in Reach/Mobility.

The line slanting downwards shows the state of technology for the various products at the moment. Unfortunately, there is a void in the middle of products that are high in mobility with average richness. Not many products are able to balance this well while maintaining usability. There is also the “Laws of Physics” that is preventing technologies like a 75″ TV fitting into your pocket.

The challenge faced by most technology players right now is:
1) Filling the void
2) Getting off and above the line

HP’s strategy for achieving (2) is by exploiting Touch technology to increase the Reach of PCs to untapped markets. Currently, 80% of the market has never owned a PC due to literacy barriers. Another reason for this is the intimidation with using a keyboard and mouse. Some of us might find it difficult to understand why using a mouse/keyboard may be intimidating but if you look at it, there are people around us even in developed nations (e.g: the elder generation) who are afraid of performing mouse clicks in fear of what unintended actions may be triggered on the PC.

Why Touch?
Apart from there being non-gimmicky uses for Touch technology, it is a form of interaction which we have been using in our everyday lives – for example, the ATM machine. The learning curve for Touch technology is also less steep as users has one lesser step of learning how to use a new device.

Challenges faced with Touch
HP’s motivation for using Touch is to drive the ease of use of new technologies by designing devices that adopt to users. The very first question that popped into my head was:

“There are so many different type of uses around the world with different levels of literacy. Wouldn’t HP have to design many different devices for different communities?”

Sharings from the lab
Phil shared some research findings in HP’s labs. They tested touch with 2700 users in homes of mixed literacy and discovered that people touch devices differently based on where they grew up.

Here are some of the examples Phil mentioned:
– Some used a whole hand, their thumb or items like an eraser and pencil
– Pulling both sides of an image to enlarge an image
– Grabbing one corner to enlarge the image
– When grabbing one corner and realizing the image follows the hand, the user shakes his hand rigorously as though he was trying to shake it off

From all this research they were able to map out which set of gestures were natural for the different types of users. Based on the first few gestures used by the user, the computer will be able to tell which set of gestures to load for the rest of the user’s interactions. A similar analogy would be how users would select a language on the computer before your mobile phone loads up in the appropriate language.

Do note that this is just for research and not all gesture sets will be going into the final product.

Moving into emerging markets
Lastly, I was wondering how HP plans to break into emerging markets where there are a large number of non-PC owners. Due to cost and infrastructure issues, current PCs are too expensive for people to own in these countries. E.g: In Africa, the cost of one month of broadband is equal to 14 months of their salary).

Instead of focusing on bringing existing PCs into emerging markets, HP is focusing on building basic PCs with the right technologies to meet their needs. They are currently experimenting with concept PCs in some of these markets.

For a later post..
Phil did send me quite a bit of information on their work on emerging markets and also segments of the community with special needs. However, as this post is getting lengthy, I will keep it for another day. 🙂

Concluding words
From the session, I could tell that most of the players in the PC market are jumping into the bandwagon of natural user interfaces. There are lots of other cool technologies HP is experimenting with out there like gaze, motion and tactile feedback. However, most of these are still just “gimmick”s and not at a stage where it can be integrated into HP’s products. HP went with Touch as it is found to be the most practical and usable of them all.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what technologies will come into our computers 5 years down the road! (Maybe some cool holography/Augmented Reality stuff). On the other hand, I’m glad that we are not flooded with useless tech filled with only “gimmicks” for novelty. 😀

P.S: Oh yes! Before I forget, many thanks to the Amelia and Calvin from Waggener Edstrom for giving me this opportunity to be in a discussion with Phil. 😀


HP TouchSmart PC Blogger’s Event

25 06 2008

Update: Special competition announced: Lets win a HP TouchSmart! Click here😀

A quick introduction
Last night I was invited to attend the HP TouchSmart PC Blogger’s Event at the mod and cozy Brotzeit Bar in VivoCity. It was a really great event for me as apart from pressing, poking and hacking the gadget till my heart’s content I had a lot of fun putting faces bloggers whom I’ve only heard of or been Twittering with like the infamous Marina, Daphne and NTT.

Daphne and me!

Oh and I met NTT, Jerrick and Daniel, from Tech65 too! Bunch of fun guys! 😀

The presentation…
The event started off with Hwee Koon (HP Director of Consumer PC & Handheld Business Units) giving a quick presentation of how the idea and concept of the TouchSmart came about with an emphasis on the idea of creating a touch screen PC that would revolutionize the way people used a PC and is small enough to fit into a messenger bag. By messenger bag, they don’t mean it will fit into your laptop but convenient to move from one place to another. It is after all a PC, not meant to be portable like your laptop.

The next part was about the purpose of the event which was to not only let us be the first in Singapore to toy with the prototypes but also gather feedback to be incorporated into future upgrades/versions of the product. At first I thought it was all just part of the PR “gimmick” to make us bloggers feel like we’re providing more value than just our blogs helping create some early publicity. However, upon conversing with the HP staff who were actively throwing us questions as we toyed with the gadget, I realize that they were quite serious about it (which of course motivated me to poke around more!).

“Touching” The Gadget!

Haha sorry if I’m looking sleepy! Kind of tired after work ^^;;;

The TouchSmart actually runs on Windows Vista but has a specially written by HP program called the HP TouchSmart Home which hosts applications made specially for the TouchSmart like Calendars, Photos, Music Player, Video Player and etc.

The interface is very intuitive and friendly where all the icons and buttons are really huge making it easy to navigate by sliding and dragging stuff around (although I have to admit it kind of reminds me of the iPhone). I tested out their multi-touch technology which they fervently refer to as “dual-touch” by performing the infamous 2 finger zoom in and out feature. The technology is definitely there but currently only the main menu supports it. They have not incorporated it into the other softwares or applications in the TouchSmart Home as of yet.

What I really like!

1) The huge high-resolution screen
The screen is really huge and sharp making it superb for watching videos, browsing through pictures and viewing notes. You can actually convert it into something akin to a fridge door where you have lots of “Post-It” notes with the Notes application. It really makes sense to do this as the touch technology makes it easy to write, drag and toss notes around.

2) Product design
Being like a flat panel and having a stand of its own, it is one of those devices that would be useful in the kitchen, living room or even on a shelf in the common area that would make your home look at lot more digital.

3) HP TouchSmart Home
I really like their software because it makes things intuitive even for a non-techy person like maybe a housewife or child. Even though the applications currently available are basic, the learning curve is quite flat making it easy for anyone to just poke around and get their favourite music/video playing in less than a minute.

My recommendations
1) The SDK
I hope they will release an SDK for their HP TouchSmart Home program so developers can start developing some useful applications catered to different customer segments for a variety of purposes. This will really help boost what the HP TouchSmart is capable of doing as I believe the software combined with the touch technology has the potential to bring a new dimension to the PC and make it a truly centralized digital home system that even a techno-phobic person can handle.

2) Ease of adding applications
I’m not sure whether the developers have already thought of this but the HP staff present were unsure of the mechanism for adding applications in the future when more are released. If they can create a function in the HP TouchSmart Home where users just press a button, get connected to the Internet, see a list of latest applications with descriptions, select the ones they want added and everything will be downloaded and installed automatically. This would keep consumers engaged and more able to pack the TouchSmart Home with applications to suit their daily needs and activities.

3) Pre-set Windows Vista settings to huge icons
Currently when the TouchSmart is booted up, it goes directly to your typical Windows Vista interface. It is great that it runs Windows Vista meaning you can still go on with your daily PC activities that are not supported by the TouchSmart Home software. However, using Windows Vista in its default settings and a hand is a HUGE PAIN because the selection menus were all built for the “point and click” mouse. You have to literally position your finger to quite a high precision to select what you want. Usability would improve tremendously if Windows Vista was already preset to huge icons and selection menus that are touch-friendly upon start up.

4) Skype Video-Conferencing!!
This is in my wishlist of applications. I would really love to see Skype incorporated into the TouchSmart Home. Imagine pressing a button that opens up your contact list, selecting someone you want to call and a video conference starts immediately! It’d be like picking up a phone to call someone, only diff is that this is on a touch screen with a high-resolution video. If this was possible, even my grandparents would know how to do video-conferencing. (I tried teaching them how to use Skype and it didn’t work. Too many things to click).

Some last words..
So that’s my account of the HP TouchSmart PC that has already been launched in Berlin(10th June) and will be launched in Singapore on 18th July (its coming to Asia quite fast I must say). Honestly, if I bought one I don’t think I would use it for heavy-usage like design/development work or hard-core gaming. Some casual games like Bejewelled and Diner Dash are fun to play on it but I would like to use it for things that I can’t do on my normal PC like those mentioned above that would enhance my digital lifestyle. Having said that, I am really thrilled by the technology and potential of it and am sort of impatient to see in what creative ways consumers use this device at the end of the day.

Alright! Before I leave, here are some pictures I took from the event. I’ll leave you to figure out who is who (and what is what) :D.

Links you might want to check out:
HP TouchSmart PC Announcement in Berlin
From Sheylara
From Darryl
Great video demo from Claudia!
My Qik videos from this event (very low quality though due to bad lighting :(… )
Bernard’s account of the event