Let’s turn once again to the theme of new forms of user interface. I mentioned one last month from Microsoft Research, now here’s another one being demonstrated by Jeff Han of the New York University Media Research Lab.
While some aspects of it are undeniably impressive, I have the nagging feeling that Han, like any proud parent, is overselling the device. He says, at several points in the demo, that the "interface just disappears" (meaning that it is intuitive to use). And, true, for some tasks – such as moving "photos" around on a "desk", and "resizing" them, it is. But, er, hang on – where did that keyboard appear from? There was a mode change here (e.g. I am no longer shuffling photos, I want to write captions on them) that he as the user would have had to signal to the computer interface. And how did he get rid of it to switch back to shuffling his photos?
Don’t get me wrong, I think the interface that he demonstrates is very compelling – as far as it goes. But I have the feeling that it doesn’t go very far. You’re stuck with the fact that mode changes in an interface are a necessary evil, and that without some form of standard interface conventions, every application will end up doing their own thing. That way lies, not a disappearing interface, but the tower of Babel.