Does Software Innovation Mean Tinkering with the Interface?
The Interface as the Critical Driver of Innovation
Successful innovation disrupts the existing ecosystem, by radically changing the accustomed behaviour. Such change is often accompanied by muddling the waters, usurping incumbents from their cosy ecosystem, and giving new challengers an opportunity to make their mark.
More often than not, interface changes bring about such disruption.
An interface represents a shared boundary between two or more components of a system. Users depend on such interface to communicate between the connected systems, meaning the interface is the point where humans connect with the technology.
Interfaces have been constantly subject to innovations over the years. In fact, most of the major big-bang innovations in computing have been centred on the interface, with each innovation, almost to a rule, providing smarter and simpler ways to use a thing or the underlying technology.
The Journey of the Input Device
One of the earliest big-bang innovations in computing has been the humble mouse. When Douglas Engelbart of SRI International invented the mouse in 1964, he actually innovated to offer a simple “point and click” way to interact with the computer, a big improvement from entering keyboard commands.
Now, Pranav Mistry’s “Mouseless” is all set to do away with the mouse together, replacing it with an infrared laser beam and an IR camera, allowing users to interact with the computer by simply moving their hands over the table. Likewise, Leap Motion replaces the mouse with a tiny metallic bar placed between the keyboard and monitor. The bar captures the user’s swipes and waves of the hands, made in the air.
Such innovations have permeated the mobile space as well. The iPhone, as well as Nintendo’s Wii controller, enables users to control games and applications by manoeuvring the device through the air, without having to make physical contact with the touchscreen. The technology leverages the gyroscope, compact magnetometers, and accelerometers, for the purpose.
Startups such as Xtr3D and Soft Kinetic are on the verge of developing computer vision software, which leverages infrared, to sense whole-body-movements, to take gaming based app interface to a whole new level.
Newer ways of Interaction
The scope of innovating with the interface is not limited to device hardware alone. Researchers are constantly prototyping newer and novel software for people to interact with computers, access information, and store information digitally.
Text-to-speech was a major disruptor, offering a viable innovation to the keyboard interface. Various applications have been built upon the technology, with each application innovating to unlock new possibilities. Of late, text-to-speech has been subject to further innovation, paving the way for the rise of natural language interfaces such as Siri, Cortana, and other virtual assistants. Intuitive developers are further innovating on such technology, with the rise of intelligent chatbots the best manifestation of the same.
Virtual Reality and Augmented reality applications represent another milestone in the innovation of interactive solutions. Examples abound.
- Augmented product displays in stores, to give users product information and web access, allowing them to read reviews, and do additional research, on-the-fly, without having to access their smartphones and search for the information.
- Ambient Apps, such as Google Now, Circle, and Highlight monitor user behaviour and context. These interfaces innovate to become invisible, and push the relevant information to the user, at the right time, and at the right context. This is a big disruption from the traditional apps and devices which requires users to search and pull the required information.
- TaPuMa, (Tangible Paper Maps) offers real-time directions when placing objects atop the digital touchscreen. For example, placing a boarding pass atop the touchscreen generates the map to the airport gate. Placing a debit card atop the screen offers direction to the nearest ATM machine.
- Apps such as Nokia’s Mobile Augmented Reality Application (MARA), and Wikitude, collect data from a wide array of GPS receivers and other sensors, to provide precise positioning capabilities. This unlocks a wide range of new possibilities, such as identifying the location of a person or a vehicle, playing location-based games, unlocking location-based offers, setting up geofences, and more. For instance, iNap, an intuitive new app, leverages all these capabilities and much more, to monitor a person’s position, and wakes her up, before she misses her bus or train.
What distinguishes these cases o successful innovation from the multitudes of failures, or innovative ambitions being withered down to “reinventing the wheel?”
The first and the biggest caveat is the underlying infrastructure. Innovating the interface succeeds only when it is supported by the underlying infrastructure and technology. For instance, the success of micro-transactions and free-to-play model in the gaming industry, which has disrupted traditional game studios, is owing to the maturity of supporting infrastructure that made possible frictionless payment systems. It goes without saying successful innovation requires not just the idea, but sound competency in the underlying infrastructure.
Another caveat is the culture. Innovation thrives only in a supportive ecosystem. A culture of openness, transparency, and self-motivation are essential ingredients to enable the application of innovative solutions.
Yet another caveat is the seriousness in which users or the target audience regard the innovations. Many hugely successful interfaces were dismissed as toys or fancy gadgets in the beginning before it gained traction and went on to achieve mainstream dominance. A push, to make the end-users and stakeholders aware of the latent possibilities, and how it would make their lives simpler, helps.