Archive for January 29th, 2008

Untidy desks go graphical

January 29, 2008

A long, long time ago computer scientists came up with the idea that the way to structure human interaction with the PC was through the metaphor of the office desktop. So you have things like wastepaper baskets and folders full of files. But you cannot really simulate the organised ‘chaos’ of the piles of papers and folders that is the real desktop of the average worker – until now.

A company called BumpTop has used research undertaken by students at the University of Toronto to produce a prototype computer interface which attempts to do just that. Using the new interface, documents can be scattered about the desktop in disorganised piles, pushed around the surface or even picked up and flung from one corner of the desk to another. Documents can even be made to stick out slightly from a pile – just like in real life.

It’s difficult to fully do justice to this with words alone, so it is worth having a peek at a YouTube video the company have made. At the point in the video where they introduce the ‘degree of tidyness’ parameter I began to wonder whether this may all be an elaborate student practical joke. But no, it appears to be a real project with an attendant published, peer-reviewed conference paper.

Frankly, this is a pretty brilliant piece of ‘left-field’ thinking because they have taken the desktop metaphor to its ultimate logical conclusion and thereby replicated the useful messiness of real life. Not everyone will want this of course – some people like the way that PCs force them to be tidy, but for many people there is a lot of implicit knowledge contained in the way that piles of documents are ordered and placed on their physical desks. I think it also fits with the prevailing direction of travel for human computer interaction, which is rapidly becoming more fluid and natural.

Ironically, back in real life, I came across this in an IEEE technical magazine, read about it, and then when I came to post this blog item, I couldn’t find the magazine on my desk for two days.