Beyond Touch: This Lab is Designing Humanity’s Next User Interface

Published on May 6, 2020

Chris Harrison is always thinking about the future. Specifically, he’s thinking about how people in the future will be interacting with computers. His main focus is on what the computer interface landscape will be like, 25 years from now. Since Chris is currently 35 years old, he’s basically designing the computers that will be used right around the time he retires (Source).

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It’s in Harrison’s best interest to do so, because that’s his job. He is the director of the Future Interfaces Group at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (within Carnegie Mellon University). His office can be found in a hundred year old solar powered building on the west side of Carnegie Mellon’s Pittsburgh campus. FIGLAB, as it’s called, has sections loaded with everything one would need to do this kind of research and development. From high-tech sensors to CNC milling machines and laser cutters (Source).

A Nerd at Heart

Chris Harrison told Digital Trends: “I’m definitely a nerd at heart. I enjoy thinking about speculative futures and what could be. That’s very much what our research does. I think in some respects we are working in the science fiction domain; we’re trying to think about possibilities that don’t yet exist. Then once we have the idea, we go to work saying, ‘can we cobble together these future technologies out of the Legos of today, meaning the technology pieces that we have?’”

The creations that come out of FIGLAB vary between truly inspirational and completely insane, but they are always innovative. One of their projects is a conductive paint that can turn a regular wall into a giant touch-sensitive panel, and it only costs $1 per square foot. Another is a smartwatch that uses laser projection to extend its touchscreen onto your arm. Neat things like that.

The Quest To Find The Perfect Interface

Don’t make the mistake of seeing computer interfaces as a gimmick to sell new devices. The right user interface can fundamentally change the way we use technology. The GUI (Graphical User Interface), and the accompanying mouse, made computing visual. This made it easier for the average person to understand and manipulate things. The touchscreen revolution, ushered in by the iPhone in 2007, made it more personal. There is something about using your hands to interact directly with what your eyes see that just makes a using computer feel more natural.

There isn’t really a rule book to follow when it comes to designing user interfaces. It’s a discipline stuck halfway between science and art. Sure, there are great ways to digitally organize things, but those ways are generally difficult for humans to work with. The user interface bridges the gap between how a computer works and how it is operated.

Harrison spoke to Digital Trends again saying, “Engineering works great when you have a problem like ‘Here’s a bridge; the river is 300 feet wide; build a bridge that spans the gap.’ It’s easy to build solutions when the problem is well defined. Most of our work is actually trying to find the problems … We have to have that eye, that lens, that looks beyond. Like, what could be even better about [a particular] experience? You have to decouple yourself from reality a little bit.”

If You Build it They Will Come

Any technology that’s gonna have a big impact on the next decade is already a decade old, and although there is a bit of contemplating what future problems might arise, the team at FIGLAB isn’t exactly trying to predict the future. Instead, it’s being innovative today, so that their work pays off years from now, for everybody.

The hardest part about that, of course, is finding out what things people need, but don’t exist yet. If you make something great enough, you may even create the need for what you made, just by making it.

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