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The Grill: David Merrill

o Sara Forrest
10.08.2009 kl 16:52 |

David Merrill, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, wants to make your computer work for you -- literally. Imagine arranging images, composing electronic music and completing math and language tasks on your computer using a more three-dimensional approach. Merrill believes that the little miracle blocks he calls Siftables will help us interact with digital media in a more natural, tangible way. As their co-creator, he is passionate about this science of "embodied media."

 

David Merrill, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, wants to make your computer work for you -- literally. Imagine arranging images, composing electronic music and completing math and language tasks on your computer using a more three-dimensional approach. Merrill believes that the little miracle blocks he calls Siftables will help us interact with digital media in a more natural, tangible way. As their co-creator, he is passionate about this science of "embodied media."

Dossier

Name: David Merrill

Title: Co-creator of Siftables

Organization: Ph.D. student in the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT Media Lab; affiliate of Taco Lab, a hybrid design and engineering firm specializing in interfaces and interactions

Location: San Francisco

Philosophy in a nutshell: "I love to build enabling technologies that make people's lives better. I approach life as rationally as I can, but I stay open to unexpected conversations, recommendations and collaborations."

Musical tastes: Acoustic folk, electronic, and surf rock

Favorite museums: The Exploratorium (San Francisco), the Tate Modern (London) and the Egyptian Museum (Cairo)

What is embodied media, and in what ways does it overcome the obstacles of traditional computing? The computational power of everyday computers has grown enormously in recent years. As a result, the most important bottleneck is now the effectiveness of the human-computer interaction rather than the speed of the processor. We've had the keyboard and mouse for more than 40 years now; while these are still useful interfaces, I don't believe they are the best we can do for all of our computing needs.

Embodied media offers a new point in the interaction design space between tangible and graphical user interfaces. It combines elements of both paradigms -- physically embodied manipulatives that can be grasped and moved by hand, and screens that can show visual information. The graphical display is a key feature compared to other "tangibles," since it allows the interactive roles and content assignments to manipulatives to be visually legible to the user and dynamically assigned at runtime.

Can you talk about your past experience with computer science? How did you become involved with this type of work? My first programming experience was using Logo to draw geometric patterns when I was in fourth grade. Then, in high school, I wrote some math applications and games for my TI-82 graphing calculator after a friend showed me how to use variables and loops. But it wasn't until I was an undergraduate at Stanford that I really fell in love with computer science. At first, the elegance and flexibility of software satisfied my budding inner geek, but after I took an electronic-instrument-building class taught by Bill Verplank and Max Matthews at the computer music center, I realized that designing totally new hardware devices opened a world of possibilities for interfaces. Building physical systems for human-computer interaction became my obsession. I built several musical interfaces at Stanford, and in my research at the MIT Media Lab I developed a number of new physical interfaces.

When did you begin working on Siftables, and what are they made of? Siftables began a few years ago as a brainstorm with Jeevan Kalanithi; we imagined how people might interact with digital information by using their hands to manipulate a sea of tiny physical, active, computational objects. We were influenced by ideas from tangible interfaces, pervasive computing and sensor networks, but only later would Siftables be contextualized against the backdrop of these ideas as a hybrid platform that blended these themes with the flexibility of pixels that defines graphical user interfaces. The beginning was pure inspiration, an uninhibited "what if" speculation about a system that would permit compelling new physical interactions.

Over the next year, Jeevan and I built a series of prototypes, each improving on the previous and introducing more functionality. Today, each Siftable is a small interactive computer with a graphical display, neighbor and motion sensing, a rechargeable battery and wireless communication. They can give physical embodiment to digital content and be manipulated as a group as an interface to the content.

Do different Siftables have different components, or vary in size or shape? The size of each Siftable is mostly determined by the display, and the current display is large enough to show an image thumbnail or symbol such that it can be recognized easily from across a tabletop. We have also built a few applications that use Siftables in conjunction with a large display. One example is TeleStory, a language-learning application created by my MIT colleague Seth Hunter. TeleStory is an interactive cartoon narrative that children can control by lifting, shaking and aligning Siftables, each one showing a character or item. The Siftables act as the controller, and the action happens on the large screen. This may be a useful model for future applications, though it introduces some challenges in managing the user's attention.

Can cities and urban areas benefit from embodied media in public parks and historical sites, for example? What about museums? Absolutely. Accessible user interfaces such as embodied media, multitouch, and other physical and gesture-based systems can offer great benefits to "walk up and use" interactive installations at museums and other public sites. For a long time, a trackball with durable buttons controlling a mouse cursor on a computer monitor was the state-of-the-art in interactive museum installations, but that is starting to change. Based on my own interactions with people in the science museum world, I think there is a growing awareness that the next generation of tools is becoming available, and many are trying to make use of the new capabilities.

What are the biggest problems for current computer interfaces, and how do you strive to overcome these obstacles? Computers need to become more delightful. For many people, computers are a source of daily frustration. Programs crash or run sluggishly, or they are confusing or repetitive to use. Error messages often don't provide enough context, nor is there anything that most users can do to solve many program errors. Some of these problems stem from the fact that the capabilities of computers are often not exposed to the user in ways that are a good match to the activity domain.

My belief is that we need a new generation of hand tools for the Digital Age. Like traditional hand tools such as wood planes, drills and spades, the visual appearance of these tools will suggest their use, and physical motion will be integral to the activity. However, instead of sculpting physical matter, these tools will operate on digital bits. Or perhaps the line will be blurred.

I think we need more computational tools that leverage our lifetime of knowledge rather than making us always learn new conventions.

Keywords: Hardware Systems  
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