Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog

19Feb/150

Style trumps functionality

I'm finding myself a little disillusioned by how completely and totally consumers have been trained to value style over functionality. The trend has especially hit home for me in the technical world. A demo using the latest glitzy technology automatically wins simply because of the special affects. What the developing team admits that the data is all fake and the interfaces are non-existent, the user ignores this huge gap in development simply because it looks cool. Requirement documents are better if they're visual graphs, charts, arrows, and flows rather than any real meat.

It's a reflection of our culture I suppose. We're interested in all things new, all things beautiful, all things that tickle our emotions, our senses, and our desires. 3D TV is now the rage (or maybe it's fading now...?) -- imagine, seeing movies that are a little bit more like real life. Our culture is one of vicarious, disconnected participation. Why climb a mountain when you can see an IMAX movie that shows a pro doing it?

There's also such an amazing degree of shallowness... Our conversation becomes riddled with catch-phrases, idioms, and cliches until we're hardly more than advanced, random, modern culture speech generators. We're a culture that consumes and consumes with a focus on functionality that will let us consume more -- more efficiently, and faster. We no longer climb a hill to enjoy the beauty and reflect on the Creator but to post the pictures on Flickr in order to fill out our Facebook profile with more pictures. We still create, but we create to consume again.

Is our culture purposeless beyond the next consumption high? Do we strive to make the world a better place anymore for any reason other than fulfilling our own dreams and aspirations? Where are those who will sacrifice their own good, their family's good, for a Higher Cause? Our we really as narcissistic as we seem?

We have tools available to us in life. We can develop those tools-- sharpen and refine them. Many find satisfaction in their jobs, not necessarily because of what we're accomplishing, but because it makes us feel good. We fight wars, not because there is wrong to Right but because rising oil prices will impinge our nation's ability to consume. We give our money to aid foreign countries because in the long run, it could help us. We abort humans before they see the light of day because it's messing with our plans for parenthood. We give to the church because, in our pride, we want our sect to prosper and show the world they're wrong.

So what does all this have to do with style vs. functionality?

A requirements document for any project defines the objective. It's the purpose of the project. What does it do, how fast does it need to be, what sort of interfaces need it support. It's solving a problem-- answering a need. Our culture looks at problems and finds ways, not of accomplishing them, but of making them less painful and more appealing through some spiffy styling. We let the requirement slip for speed because it really would be nicer if there was more graphical display to the user. Yeah, it will slow things down, but imagine how much more fun it will be to use! At that moment, the objective is being redefined. Our own pleasure, longings, desires, and convenience are now the focus.

For some projects, perhaps this was an objective in the first place. An iPhone's driving purpose is not to fill a previously unmet need but to make accomplishing a wide range of tasks more enjoyable and easier. In this case, the initial functionality was focused intentionally at ourselves.

The obvious question is immediately raised: What on earth am I suggesting functionality should be focused on if not improving ourselves? So what if we create to consume again?

I think the answer has to do with precisely one thing: How does one define "good"? Is something good if it makes us happy? What if it makes us happy but it makes someone else equivalently unhappy? Are "good" things, things that make everyone happy? What if happiness incompatibilities exist? Imagine there are only two people left in the world. The only thing that will make either person happy is to kill the other person. Are they both "bad" even if they both want exactly the same thing?

I think a more plausible explanation is that "good" is what is Right. Not just "right" for you or "right" for the majority, but truly Right. An absolute Right implies the existence of some sort of ultimate Requirement Document. We can take action to bring our life into line with the spec. or we can attempt to creep the Requirements here and there to make our life more comfortable.

18Feb/150

Augmented Reality

The following is a not terribly organized set of ramblings that I had regarding augmented reality.

Just for the sake of defining what I'm talking about, Wikipedia refers to augmented reality as:

Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified (possibly even diminished rather than augmented) by a computer. As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. By contrast, virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one. Augmentation is conventionally in real-time and in semantic context with environmental elements, such as sports scores on TV during a match. With the help of advanced AR technology (e.g. adding computer vision and object recognition) the information about the surrounding real world of the user becomes interactive and digitally manipulable. Artificial information about the environment and its objects can be overlaid on the real world.

Minority ReportThere are different types of augmented reality, for example, the interface that is used in the movie Minority Report is a sort of augmented reality interface. More recently, Google Glass was in the news quite a bit with it's interesting wearable augmented reality device. Google's product (and in general, all "wearable" augmented reality devices are more like what I'm thinking about in terms of this article today.

The odd thing is that although I like the idea of wearable "augmented reality" in many ways, it needs to be discrete enough that basically no one but me will know if I'm running it. Part of the issue with any of this tech is that it makes humans seem less human. People aren't comfortable with talking to someone who has a visible camera aperture pointed at them. In reality, I think most people are aware that with the pervasive use of video surveillance cameras and other recording devices are already recording us on a regular basis (almost continuous basis depending on where we are) it's not a whole lot different. There's something personal about it though.

Let's say I'm talking to a friend about how frustrated I am about another person. Maybe my boss, or my teacher, or a friend who I feel has wronged me or others. In these situations, we typically feel comfortable currently because we are in a private area and the discussion can't be recorded without making it obvious. As we move forward into the future, this is going to be less of a sure thing. We will have to trust people to either not record when we ask or to keep their recordings private. This is new for us in the realm of private, face-to-face conversations but it's not new elsewhere. I forward emails that complain or whine about other people and I assume that my friends will not forward it on. (Please note: I'm not justifying my whining about third-parties with other people. This is probably a bad habit that I should break. Regardless, I still do it sometimes.)

The example above that I gave is more about gossip than anything else, but the same could be said for pillow-talk (or "revenge porn" which is becoming a thing) or even things as mundane as business decisions in a company. In the near future, recording devices and other computing resources will be small enough as to be nearly undetectable. There has to be a cultural and technological etiquette established to deal with this properly. What I mean is that in some ways, this is about being polite and civil, as well as trusting and being trusted and at the same time it will likely mean the development of tech to disable, or at least detect, the presence of devices like this in situations where we don't necessarily trust. We already have a work area that we can't bring certain devices into. This works when it's relatively obvious if you're in violation. But I think we'll see new tech that allows an area like our workplace to be ENFORCED.

Google Glass If I was more of a hardware guy, I'd be looking at a startup to do DETECTION tech for new hardware like this. Let companies like Google and Apple develop our new high-tech augmented reality devices (I can just see Apple marketing it as the iBall!). We're going to need a way for companies and people alike to feel comfortable using it. It's boring technology. Most people would be intrigued by an invisible augmented reality device because it adds value to their life (or they believe that it will). But a device that detects this same technology is more of a necessary purchase to protect yourself than anything else.

There are downsides to creating devices that are intending to identify or disable recording. For example, police or others who are actively abusing their power or authority do no want to have their deeds or words recorded despite the fact that the public should be keeping them accountable. But I still think that there's some good money to be made in this market and I'm interested to see how it develops.