DRIVING THE TUI
INSIDE THE TUI
TANGIBLE USER INTERFACE
Researcher are always looking for new and better ways for users to interact with computing and communications technology, to make the process easier, as well as more satisfying, engaging, and effective. Because of this, interfaces—including punch card and paper tape readers, switches, keyboards, mice, GUIs, touch pads, and joysticks—have become a critical technology. One avenue of research that is beginning to be adopted commercially is the TANGIBLE USER INTERFACE. With a TUI, users interact with a digital system by manipulating physical objects linked to and directly representing some aspect of the system. Thus, the objects are both representations of and controls for digital information. For example, a land developer using a TUI-based interactive table could manipulate tokens that look like buildings and that cause changes directly to the computational model of an entire development plan. The interface thus provides direct input and output. With a GUI, mice or keyboards enable input only. And neither onscreen icons nor their manipulation physically represent either the data being processed or the actions being taken with the information “Tangible user interfaces have emerged as a new interface type that interlinks the digital and physical worlds by computationally augmenting tangible objects to serve as representations of digital information, allowing users to quite literally grasp data with their hands,” noted Wellesley College assistant professor Orit Shaer. “This allows users to apply technology to things you do in a very natural way,” said Microsoft Surface director Somanna Palacanda. For many tasks, TUI proponents say, this enables more effective interaction with digital systems. TUIs have been the subject of research since the 1970s but are only now starting to appear in products, as discussed in the “Microsoft Surface,” “Reactable,” and “Sifteo” sidebars. Shaking Apple’s iPod to shuffle the music it plays is one example of a commercial TUI implementation.“TUIs are starting to be applied to lots of different domains, from creative expression to tools for professionals to learning systems and games,” noted David Merrill, president and cofounder of TUI vendor Sifteo. Although vendors and researchers say they expect TUI implementation to increase, the technology still must clear several hurdles before it is ready for widespread use. DRIVING THE TUI
GUIs have been the most popular interface approach for years. However, some TUI developers say this approach is limited and doesn’t take advantage of users’ experience and skills working directly with physical objects. EARLY WORK
Many experts credit work by CAD and architecture researcher Robert Aish and design pioneer John Frazer in the 1970s as inspirations for modern TUI research. An early example of a TUI system is the Marble Answering Machine, which Durrell Bishop—now an owner of Luckybite, a product design and innovation company—developed in 1992 while working on his master’s degree at the UK’s Royal College of Art. The device released a marble for each message left on the answering machine. Users could drop a marble into a callback slot to either play back the message or contact the person who left it. FAVORABLE FACTORS
Multiple factors are contributing to TUIs’ increased popularity. “The advent of touch-enabled personal computing devices has increased the need to allow people to interact with digital content in a more natural way,” said Microsoft’s Palacanda. “Customers and consumers are becoming very familiar with natural-gesture controls and are comfortable using them to interact with digital content,” he continued. “This suits itself to a more collaborative type of environment, whereas mouse and keyboard environments are limited to...
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