Apple's talented researchers investigate the blindingly obvious

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 04/91 item 01 - scanned

There I was, fast asleep, when I was woken by a loud thump from my 10-year-old's bedroom. I rushed in there to see him sitting on the side of his bed with blood pouring from his head. It turned out he'd fallen out of bed and banged his head on his desk.

The wound was about a centimetre long and, although I was able to clean it up, I really thought it should have a stitch or suture to hold it together. The problem was that all the hair around the wound prevented me sticking a plaster on it.

I called the hospital and described the wound. They suggested I bring him in and they'd see if they could glue it together. Daniel was very relieved, because he didn't fancy having it stitched. A very nice doctor took one look at him and said: "I don't think he'll need stitches or glue." She spent a little while swabbing the wound and fiddling around, then stepped back and said, "He can go home now."

Can you guess how she closed the wound? She tied his hair across it. Boy, was I mad. It was such a blindingly obvious thing to do. It was staring me in the face when I was moaning about the hair getting in the way. Had I thought of it, we could have all got back to bed a couple of hours earlier.

The reason I mention this is because Apple has a whole department devoted to finding the blindingly obvious. It is headed by Joy Mountford, who was a speaker at the recent Macworld Expo in Birmingham. Her team spends all its time experimenting with, and trying to extend the human interface of present and future Macs.

Until recently, we have communicated with the Mac with our hands and received messages with our eyes. Mountford's group considers ways of extending this interaction by using more of our senses.

Hearing is another sense which hasn't really been exploited yet in the control of the Mac (apart from the boing or the eek of the monkey). Speech both to and from the Mac is under consideration, as are gestural controls and tactile feedback.

Before I get too carried away by Mountford's ideas, I want to give some examples of her team's work. Take the screen icons as they stand at present. They're 2D and really don't tell you a great deal about what they represent. Someone in Mountford's group has the idea of making them 3D. Not in the sense of giving them depth and leaving it at that, but being able to rotate them and look at their other faces.

One face could be the standard icon you're familiar with. Another could contain a colour to show which area of activity it belongs to. Another could contain an animation which gives more information about the contents. Another could give technical details of the object. And so on. The information associated with each icon could be multiplied several times, yet be available instantly by clicking on or around the icon. This beats messing around with the View menu and gives lots of extra information besides.

Even inside an application, icons can be brought to life. How about an icon which runs through an explanation of its various modes. Press the option key when the icon is selected to get a horizontally scrolling description of what effect the option key has on its function. Or, to choose an example from Mountford's presentation, a delightful animation of the erase function complete with a verbal description sung to a rap rhythm.

Moving pseudo 3D objects on the screen is usually a fairly clunky affair involving the adjustment of x, y and z sliders. This is counter intuitive. Most of us are used to direct manipulation of objects in space and, until we have a natural way of handling screen objects, we'll resist the attractions of 3D applications.

Apple has come up with a bright idea which is dead obvious now it has been invented. And it is so cute the company has taken out a patent on it.

The device is the virtual sphere, portrayed as a circle which surrounds the object on the screen. Imagine a chair encapsulated in a solid but transparent sphere. This can be rotated in any direction using a one-button mouse. Select the point on the sphere you want to rotate and the sphere, complete with embedded chair, follows the bidding of your mouse pointer. It gives users a natural and direct way of positioning and viewing 3D objects.

These are just a few ideas taken from the many Mountford showed us. What is remarkable is how obvious they are in retrospect, just like the repair of my son's injury.