Interface @ the Powerhouse Museum

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney to check out the exhibition Interface: People, Machines, Design. Featuring both retro and recent consumer products (primarily from Apple, IBM and Braun), the exhibition focuses on the significance of consumer products in our lives today. More importantly, it illustrates the strong emotional connection that we develop with such products, due to the marriage of effective industrial design, iconography and typography. Ultimately, for a technological product to be successful, it must tell a story and be clear, simple and accessible to as many people as possible.

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My wonderful girlfriend, Natasha, was kind enough to attend with me and watch me giggle with glee as I surveyed the numerous exhibits. My Apple zealotry has (of course) infiltrated her life, and I’m pleased to say that she enjoyed it as well. 🙂

As we toured the rather small exhibition, it became clear that the space itself was constructed to reflect the products featured; everything was minimalist, considered and ordered chronologically, showing the influence of early democratic design by legends like Braun’s Dieter Rams through to today’s ubiquitous smartphones and tablets.

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The exhibition does a wonderful job of tracking the history of modern industrial design. Take for example the history of Braun: on the one hand, the Nazis’ Volksempfänger (people’s receiver) radio was used to restrict radio signals from outside Germany; in the post-war period, Rams’s Weltempfänger (world receiver) was a challenge to this former dark time, opening up to foreign frequencies and ushering in welcoming, open design.
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The original Macintosh ushered in a new era for personal computing. With the inclusion of a graphical user interface (GUI) and mouse (first implemented together by XEROX PARC), Apple popularised a new way of interacting with computers that was easier and inviting for everyday people. You didn’t have to be an enthusiast to use it.

It was fantastic to see the history of Apple laid out so well, obviously by people who understand the significance of the personalities involved beyond Steve Jobs. Jony Ive, Helmut Esslinger, Susan Kare… all were mentioned appropriately.

I would highly recommend this exhibition to just about anyone. If you own a smartphone (which you do), it’s amazing to look back and appreciate the immense change that occurred during the 20th century, and the change that continues to occur every day. We take our digital products for granted, along with the empowering connectivity they facilitate. There has never been a better time to be alive.

Rather than bang on forever, it’s best to give you some links to find out more.

To view more photos of the included products, head over to my Flickr page.

For even more information about the exhibition and the specific products, visit the museum’s website.

Co-presence: Convenience or Curse?

As media forms and technology continue to converge, more and more people are participating in social media, e-mail, cloud computing, online gaming, SMS / MMS, push notifications, and instant messaging. These technologies create a certain ‘virtual reality’, or ‘pure information space’, immersing and connecting people across great distances in artificial environments for instant, interactive communication (Featherstone and Burrows, 1995).

Perhaps the most important consideration, however, is the creation of ‘co-presence’, or simultaneous presence in both physical and virtual worlds (Gregg, 2007). Technological co- presence has blurred the line between work and leisure, enabling people to collaborate on projects and play at any time. Most importantly, it raises interesting questions about technology’s capacity to improve or degrade human social interaction. Is it a distraction, or does it keep us connected with a broader range of friends impossible to maintain by normal, face-to- face interaction? Featherstone and Burrows (1995, p. 1) state that technological co-presence, for many, “…revives utopian impulses, coupled with the sense that we are on the edge of moving into a reconfigured world which bears little relation to our previous speculations”.

Google is currently developing a new device called ‘Project Glass’, which promises to take technological co-presence to a new level. The device is a set of wearable, augmented reality glasses, which connect to the Internet and GPS, providing users with up-to-date information, notifications and news, and allowing connectivity to Google’s vast range of Web services, including the social network ‘Google+’ (Anonymous, 2012). Google even claims that it will be released to the public this year (Claburn, 2012).

Claburn (2012) does, however, list a number of potential issues with the glasses, beyond the usual issues faced by connected smartphones, including: privacy, redundancy, cost, health (radiation), liability and control. As with all technology, we must exercise caution and moderation. Google’s Project Glass has the potential to revolutionise modern communication, work and leisure, but it could also introduce issues impacting privacy and socialisation. Does it really have a necessary place in our already media- and technology-saturated society?

What Is Accessibility?

Social media encourage online participation, interactivity, connection and access through a variety of devices every day (Dreher, 2012). Goggin and Newell (2007) describe digital technology as a ‘texture’ of how we think, feel and communicate. Prior to undertaking BCM310, a subject during my study at the University of Wollongong, I was unaware of the social exclusion that digital media can create for people with disabilities. There is a great range of medical and pharmacological technology that aid those living with disabilities (Goggin and Newell, 2007), but digital media (and many other technologies) are often slow to meet their needs, only tailoring to the broader, ‘non-disabled’ community.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the organisation responsible for establishing global Internet standards, with 66 guidelines for website design and instructions for technical implementation (Green and Huprich, 2009). One of the Consortium’s primary goals is to make the benefits of the Web “…available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability” (W3, 2012). Some organisations have adopted W3C-recommended inclusive technology. Apple, for example, has integrated screen-reading and voice capabilities into their Mac OS X and iOS operating systems (Goggin and Newell). Social media, however, have been slow to adopt such technology. Perhaps the most perplexing example is Twitter, which is often regarded to be the simplest of social networks. Twitter’s interface, for those with visual impairments, can be complex to navigate. To combat this, however, developers have created a site called ‘Easy Chirp’, an alternative site that allows users to login with their Twitter accounts, and use a simpler interface, with larger fonts, easier navigation between tweets and coloured highlighting for selected items. Screenshots comparing the original Twitter interface and alternative Easy Chirp can be seen below.

While a positive example of technological adaptation for those with disabilities, Easy Chirp has its flaws, such as a lack of sans serif fonts. In addition, the lack of accessibility improvements in Twitter itself, and the need for a third-party solution further proves the lack of insight and innovation in redesigning online user interfaces to aid those living with both physical and mental disabilities (McLellan, 2011).

References:

  • Berkeley, 2009, Educational Technology Services, retrieved 07/04/2012, from http://ets.berkeley.edu/images/apple-accessibility-logo?size=_original.
  • Dreher, T., 2012, Digital Social Inclusion: Focus on Disability, BCM310, Emerging Issues in Media and Communication, delivered 2 April.
  • Easy Chirp, 2012, martinfeld Timeline, retrieved 08/04/2012, from http://www.easychirp.com/app/tweetroll.php.
  • Goggin, G. and Newell, C., 2007, ‘The Business of Digital Disability’, The Information Society, Vol. 23, pp. 159-168.
  • Green, R. and Huprich, J., 2009, ‘Web Accessibility and Accessibility Instruction’, Journal of Access Services, Vol. 6, pp. 116-136.
  • McLellan, P., 2011, ‘Web Accessibility’, Master of Arts Thesis, IT Leadership Graduate Program, The College of St. Scholastica.
  • Twitter, 2012, martinfeld Timeline, retrieved 08/04/2012, from https://twitter.com/martinfeld.
  • W3, 2012, About W3C, retrieved 07/04/2012, from http://www.w3.org/Consortium/.

This post was written originally as part of the undergraduate BCMS course at the University of Wollongong.